In 1917, the worker-peasant alliance in economically-backward Russia began the formation of the first state in the world that truly belonged to the hardworking masses. The Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin, displayed to the whole world that it was possible for ordinary people to achieve self-determination. With counter-revolutionaries, loyalists, monarchists and revivalists attempting to purge Russia from within and imperialists waging war from outside, the tale the first “Really Existing Socialism” began under circumstances of great challenge. Nonetheless, the red star had begun to shine. Its light extended beyond the borders of the USSR, through Eastern Europe, all the way to the colonised third-world. Mired in the tactics of internationalism and world-socialism, the successful revolution offered its amicable hands to its toiling comrades of the third-world, who were struggling against the excesses of imperialism.
Before going further, it is important to note that communism in India had its origins in the material conditions of India, in its process of historical development, and its efforts to resolve the contradictions of British imperialism on the one hand, and feudal landlordism on the other. Communism in India was not a formula implanted into the minds of people by bureaucrats sitting in Moscow, as certain right-wing ideologues claim. That being said, the Bolshevik Revolution and the worker’s state it established, had a profound impact on the Indians grappling with their reality, and also provided them some theoretical frameworks.
The national and colonial questions, as they were called, were not peripheral ponderings that arbitrarily occurred in the minds of the Third International revolutionaries. For Lenin, and many others, national liberation and the anti-colonial struggle was central to the process of overthrowing capitalism. This extends from the idea that imperialism was integral for capitalism to function - which was to become Lenin’s core thesis in ‘Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism’. These revolutionaries found it preposterous that many communists of the colonizing countries (read Europe) did not concern themselves with the colonial question. In the second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin stated, “All Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations … and in the colonies.”
On this day, celebrating the 104th anniversary of the October Revolution, let us take a look at what this revolution meant to the masses of India, the country where I live.
Comintern: National and Colonial Questions
The world had changed immensely since the collapse of the First International, and the reformism, anarchism and Eurocentrism of the Second International led many revolutionaries to utter disappointment. The 1905 revolutionary coup in Russia had failed. Lenin had further solidified his understanding of imperialism as an inevitable extension of capitalism, and understood the importance of an international communist organisation that could truly connect with the people of the colonized countries. Overdetermined by these conditions, the Third International (or Comintern) was formed.
In the second Congress of the Comintern, held between July and August 1920, there were delegates from across the world, including the colonized countries. M.N Roy, a young communist of Indian origins, was representing the Mexican communist party, which he had helped form during his self-exile from India. Abani Mukherjee represented India. Lenin delivered his draft-thesis on ‘National and Colonial Questions’ which substantiated the need for the communist movement to grapple with the material conditions of colonised country and agree on some strategies and tactics to lead the spread of the revolution in the colonized world. He called for suggestions and criticisms from the delegates of various nationalities, who understood their own reality better.
Although M.N Roy was representing Mexico in the Second Congress of the Comintern, his remarks were almost entirely about the struggle in India. In response to Lenin’s address and call for criticism, M.N Roy put forward the arguments which form the basis the famous Lenin-Roy Debate. The debate can be fragmented into three areas of contention: (a) the economic mode-of-production in the colonies, (b) the role and nature of the national bourgeoisie of the colonized countries, and by obvious extension from the previous two points, (c) the mode of struggle and strategy to be applied in the colonized countries.
Lenin had remarked (in the thesis mentioned earlier) that unlike what Marxism had originally anticipated, the colonized world does not go through the subsequent historical stages and their economic mode-of-production remains backward. In the colonized countries, capitalism gets the liberty to be overwhelmingly vicious and ruthless. The character of the national bourgeoisie in those countries is also inversely affected, as the colonizers don’t allow the nationalist bourgeoisie to play the role of developing the productive forces according to its own needs and interests. However, Lenin insisted that there needs to be a strategic support and alliance with the national bourgeoisie of the colonized countries, in the process of overthrowing colonialism. In the USSR, a form of bourgeois-democratic revolution had happened before the socialist revolution could succeed. In the colonized world, the overthrow of colonialism in alliance with the national bourgeoisie would mark a similar step, paving way for socialism.
Roy disagreed on the count that the nationalist bourgeoisie of India was mired in reactionary conservatism. He argued that it was due to Lenin’s lack of awareness about the material conditions of India that the latter ascribed a progressive and revolutionary role to the Indian national bourgeoisie. Roy argued that the bourgeois-nationalist movement led by the Indian National Congress and Gandhi, was backward looking. If the communists had to align with them, the national bourgeoisie would eventually take over control of the alliance and subvert the movement. People would be led to be satisfied with bourgeois-democratic forms of capitalism and nothing more. For clarity of the Russian comrades, Roy compared Gandhi’s movement with the populist movements that had happened in Russia earlier: these were motivated by religious zeal and cultural revivalism, and were reactionary even if they might have appeared to be progressive.
The final resolution of the Congress settled on the following line:
“With regard to those states and nationalities where a backward, mainly
Initially, the phrase towards the end had assured support to “bourgeois-democratic liberation movements”. But Roy’s intervention had successfully warranted its upgrade to “revolutionary movements of liberation”.
The struggle in India was not only the struggle of the INC and Gandhi, argued Roy. The working-class and peasantry had begun to organise. It was a duty of the Communist International to support those movements.
The Communist Party of India was formed in Tashkent, sometime between 1920 and 1921, the dates are contestable. It was consolidated in the Communist Conference in Kanpur, on December 1925.
Bolshevism in Art
Maxim Gorky wrote his iconic novel ‘Mother’, after the failure of the 1905 coup. It tells the story of Mother Nilovna, a working-class woman who slowly turns to the radical path when her son Pavel (aka Pasha) exposes her to the communist movement taking place then. Avtar Singh Sandhu, a militant communist poet from Punjab, read the novel in the 70s and declared his pen name to be ‘Pash’ – named after Pasha. Between the time when the novel was written to lighten up the struggling revolutionaries of Russia, and when it was read and perceived by Pash, came so many events of thrill and solidarity.
Pash wrote about Comrade Bhagat Singh:
“The awakening of the people of Punjab
Among others, Maxim Gorky – a comrade of the revolution and a literary genius, held the idea that the revolutionary Soviet republic should have a revolutionary printing press that actively translated a wide range of texts across different languages. A publishing house for world literature was established in 1919, which survived for five years. A magazine titled ‘Literature of the World Revolution’ was launched in 1931. The most significant was the creation of Publishing Co-operative of Foreign Workers (ITIR), which translated books into foreign languages. Through Comintern connections, ITIR employed mostly migrants from different parts of the world, who brought in their indigenous wisdom. In its first year, it translated to seventeen European languages and five Asian languages. Within two decades, it was translating to various Indian, Arab and African languages. In 1963, ITIR would merge with another organization to give rise to the legendary Progress Publishers. Thousands of books from these publications would come to India, throughout the period of the Soviet Union’s existence. This would bring all kinds of books, from old fairy-tales from across the world, to analyses on political economy.
The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on art was manifold. ‘Amar Lenin’, a short film by Ritwik Ghatak portrays a working-man from rural Bengal who comes across a jatra about the Bolsheviks going from village to village, understanding the troubles of the peasants and arming them with theory. (A jatra is a drama form practised primarily in Rural Bengal, characterised by music and theatrics.) This was a part of Ghatak’s cinema of praxis, a concept he held on to, even after his fallout with the communist party. There were several such instances where Bolshevism arose in art and armed the working people with confidence to fight.
The vigorous impact of the revolution, may be summed up with a few lines from a poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya:
“We sailed across the murderous seas, we reach the safe shore,
No revolution without Lenin
It is important to note that Marxism came to India through Soviet Russia. For a sufficient period of time, Indian people who were exploring different paths of liberation, found their theory in Lenin’s writings and were thus introduced to Marxism. In the Western world, several factions of Marxist thought, both in the academic arena and the political, tend to skip Lenin. The essence of Western Marxism lies in the rejection of Soviet interpretation of Marx, which is denounced as ‘objectivist’. They go further to say that this form of Marxism was derived from Engel’s misrepresentation of Marx, and has no bearing to the original Marx at all. Other schools of the New Left make it a point to develop “anti-Stalinism” in their politics, to avoid bureaucracy and totalitarian control.
Revolutionaries in our world – the colonized world, do not have that luxury. For us, revolution runs through Leninism, which we see as the only path through which we can build socialism. Our party offices and pamphlets, alongside our own indigenous revolutionaries and heroes, have posters of Lenin, Stalin and Engels (and Mao). Not for us the defeatism of Trotsky. Not for us the entitlement of Eurocommunism. It is crucial for us, all the more, to uphold and defend the legacies of the great Bolshevik revolution.
Spectre of Communism
Three decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The renegades of capitalism have declared the “end of ideology”. The agents of the market who had begun their penetration in the Indian soil with liberalisation in the 80s, are making attempts to seep in further into every nook and corner of the country, their most recent prey being Bhagat Singh’s Punjab. In 2018, a statue of Lenin in the state of Tripura was demolished by the fascist forces, among other reasons, to drive home the point that communism is dead and done with. Yet, there are communist parties, trade-unions and students unions striving to organize and put forth the demands of the hardworking masses. There are countless people finding solace in the red-flag, as the only genuine alternative to the dominant corporate oligarchy. Surely, one may find a know-it-all bourgeois news-anchor screaming, “The USSR collapsed long ago, so what are you on about!” Across the streets and corners, in ghettoes and slums, in villages and universities, one will also find a steadfast communist, answering, “What if the reactionary forces destroy the Taj Mahal some day? Will we stop falling in love?”
This is a very personal attempt at presenting the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in India. This is not a comprehensive overview. Therefore, I have had to omit certain figures and events, which may have been important. There have been important communist and socialist movements parallel to the CPI, such as the famous HSRA with Bhagat Singh, which I have omitted. I also recognise that in the section on art, my references come from Bengal and North India. I have left out a rich plethora of art from South India, simply because of my lack of knowledge of it. Among the poems mentioned, the poem by Pash was written in Punjabi and the one by Sukanta was written in Bangla. Both have been translated by the present author.
Chowdhuri, S. R. (2007). Leftism in India: 1917-1947. Palgrave.
Prashad, V. (2019). The East was read: Socialist culture in the third world. LeftWord.
Riddell, J., Prashad, V., & Mollah, N. (2019). Liberate the colonies!: Communism and colonial freedom, 1917-1924. LeftWord Books. (The section on Lenin’s Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions, and M.N Roy’s supplementary thesis on the same.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an undergrad from India, majoring in media studies and English literature. He takes interest in cultural and literary criticism and wishes to contribute to the glorious lineage of third-world Marxism.
In a popular booklet by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (P&G), "Global Capitalism and American Empire," Lenin’ theory of imperialism comes in for some heavy criticism. Originally published in 2004 the theories propounded in this booklet (available on Amazon) are still popular with many on the left who feel that Lenin is too dated to be a useful guide to 21st century imperialist practices. The following is an attempt to show the continued relevance of Lenin’s “Imperialism,The Highest Stage of Capitalism."
The authors, in a section entitled "Rethinking Imperialism," caution against considering "globalization as inevitable and irreversible." They quote the “Communist Manifesto” as follows: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." Curiously, they think Marx and Engels were exhibiting "prescience" when they wrote this – which they call a description "of a future that strongly matches our present."
But Marx and Engels were not prophesying the future. They were describing the historical reality of their own day – so manifest, already by 1848, was the imperial drive of capitalism. Incidentally, the fact that P&G can take an 1848 description of capitalism for a future prediction strongly matching the present explains one of the reasons why the classics of Marxism have not become outdated.
P&G look at history and discern three "great structural crises" in capitalism: 1) Post 1870s colonial rivalry leading to World War I; 2) the Great Depression, leading to World War II; 3) globalization rapidly advancing due to economic problems of the 1970s. Because the contours of these crises and the results produced by them could not be predicted in advance, P&G contend that globalization is "neither inevitable" re: classical Marxism, "nor impossible to sustain." Since Lenin’s theory of imperialism implies the opposite conclusions, the authors think his theory is mistaken.
Let’s take a closer look. Lenin’s theory, according to the authors, made the "fundamental mistake" of assuming "capitalist economic stages and crises." Lenin was "defective" in his "historical reading of imperialism" as well as his understanding of capital accumulation and, lastly, his view that "inter-imperialist rivalry" was "an immutable law of capitalist globalization."
After having asserted all this, P&G concluded, contrary to Lenin’s ideas, "A distinctive capitalist version of imperialism did not suddenly arrive with the so-called monopoly or finance-capital stage of capitalism...."
P&G accuse Lenin of "reductionism" in equating monopoly capitalism with imperialism. They maintain that "capitalism" and "imperialism" are independent of each other ("two distinct concepts"). History tells them that imperialism can be traced further back than the 1870s: that it goes at least as far back as mercantilism. This is just playing with words. The Romans were imperialists as far as that goes. Lenin was not discussing some universal ahistorical "imperialism" but the specific historical imperialism of his own epoch based on the domination of financial capital.
Lenin saw that after 1873 (as a result of crises) monopoly capitalism began to consolidate and replace so-called competitive capitalism: the imperialism of Lenin’s days was a direct outgrowth of this new type, a higher type in his words, of capitalism.
We can, without accusing Lenin of having a defective historical understanding, agree with P&G that it is false to maintain that "the nature of modern imperialism was once and for all determined in the kinds of rivalries attending the stage of industrial concentration and financialization associated with turn-of-the [19th]-century monopoly capital."
But of course they are correct. No Marxist, especially Lenin, would maintain history gets frozen at a particular stage of its development. Lenin says of his definition of imperialism that it is convenient to sum up the principle aspects of the phenomena he is describing but "nevertheless inadequate" because all definitions [and theories based on them] are "conditional and relative" because all historical social events and formations are in flux.
P&G would have a better grasp of Lenin’s theory if they understood it in its own terms and did not misrepresent it as a "once and for all" statement of the nature of imperialism. Their mistake is in thinking Lenin’s view of imperialism in terms of an evolution of economic stages and crises within capitalism was itself a mistake.
P&G also deny that imperialism is the "highest stage of capitalism." They do this because they are historically situated in the 21st century phase of "globalization" and Lenin’s theory, now over a century old, dealt with the capitalism of his era. Therefore they maintain that what he was observing was "a relatively early phase of capitalism." They could have saved themselves a lot of unnecessary Lenin criticism had they been more historical themselves. Capitalism is not going to go back to a previous stage of independent national capitalism. It will continue to internationalize itself through the process we call "globalization" and what Lenin was describing was a relatively early phase of the highest stage of capitalism. What we call "globalization" is just a euphemism for the domination of the world by a handful of powerful states dominated by financial and monopoly elites that continue to plunder the world in their own interests (as the crisis of 2008 showed). Lenin saw that this system was really a transitional system to an even higher form of economic development – namely socialism. This transitional nature of the "highest stage of capitalism" is presently obscured by the temporary world dominance of US monopoly capitalism.
We should be absolutely clear about this, Lenin meant by "highest stage" not that the historical features of capitalism in his epoch were fixed for all (capitalist) time, as P&G seem to imply, but only that capitalism had, as capitalism, no higher stage to evolve into that would renounce the need to export capital (finance capital especially) and find markets abroad. Globalization is just the latest stage of monopoly capitalism as it has transformed itself and developed since the days of Lenin, but it is still the logical outcome of the situation described by Marx and Engels in 1848.
It is also, I think, an error to hold, as do P&G, that Lenin and like minded theorists of the past did not recognize the role of the state in relation to the market: that they failed "to appreciate the crucial role of the state in making ‘free markets’ possible and then to make them work."
A strange accusation to make against someone who viewed the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie and thought that it functioned to further the interests of the capitalist class and its struggle to, among other things, build, acquire, and maintain markets both domestic and foreign.
It is true that Lenin could not foresee the specific historical development that has resulted in "neoliberal" globalization dominated by one "superpower." But it is also true that the theory laid out by Lenin in “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” remains the best starting point for any attempt to understand the contemporary world.
In order to be viable, a left-wing secular humanism must recognize the complicated dynamics associated with organized religion and its influence on political parties and social movements. Crucial questions emerge that must be addressed. How much should religion influence the development of new parties? What should a left political party’s stance toward religion be, especially in regards to individual members? How can we advocate for atheism or materialism, in any form, while allying with those who are ideologically different? One of the most insightful, and definitely controversial, political theorists who reckoned with these questions was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. A deeply influential figure of 20th century world history, Lenin led the intellectual and political transformation of rural, peasant eastern Europe into the first sustained socialist government of the world, the Soviet Union. His revolutionary Marxism influenced movements around the globe, from Cuba and China to the Pan-African socialists of the 1960s and 1970s. His books Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and State and Revolution are still required reading for those interested in radical, left politics generally and Marxism in particular.*
In this analysis, we will delve into two of Lenin’s essays: “Socialism and Religion”, published in the Bolshevik newspaper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) on December 3, 1905, and “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” published in the philosophical journal Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism) on March 12, 1922. Each shows both the consistency of Lenin’s thought on the religious question as well as his evolution as a political theorist before the revolution and after. In these short but incisive pieces, Lenin defended traditional secularist values, such as the separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, and free religious association, while also calling for the political separation of religion from political parties and strategically advocating for the atheist/materialist worldview. While it would be too much to say that Lenin was a “humanist” in the general sense of the term, he was nevertheless a secularist whose insights on religion provide left humanists with clear, tactical advice on the interrelationship between faith and politics in the public sphere.
As a historical materialist, Lenin outlined in “Socialism and Religion” how capitalism as a mode of production creates the economic and cultural conditions of the society it constructs. “Present-day society is wholly based on the exploitation of the vast masses of the working class by a tiny minority of the population, the class of the landowners and that of the capitalists,” he wrote. In effect, the capitalist society “is a slave society, since the ‘free’ workers, who all their life work for the capitalists, are ‘entitled’ only to such means of subsistence as are essential for the maintenance of slaves who produce profit, for the safeguarding and perpetuation of capitalist slavery.” These conditions create what Marx called “alienation,” or a separation from ourselves, our work, and even life itself. Lenin echoed this notion when he declared, “the economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth and engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses.”
This “coarsening and darkening” manifests itself most starkly in the form of religion, which Lenin further elucidated. “Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation,” he penned. As the conditions of life continually degrade under the forces of capitalism, a reversion to spiritual concerns courses through the working class. By contrast, leaders of such a society, organized around the principle of exploitation, use religion as a tool for laundering their guilt. Thus, religion becomes a palliative for not only those at the bottom but for those at the top. Recalling Marx’s famous line from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Lenin said, “Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.”
Lenin countered this view by stressing the importance of class consciousness, whereby the working class acknowledges its lot in life, begins to actively critique capitalist society, and strives to change it. The “modern class-conscious worker,” Lenin expounded, “reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth.” Lenin again echoed Marx and Engels’ foundational work, The German Ideology, wherein they wrote, “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.” As such, the “modern class-conscious worker” discovers the indispensable connection between socialism and science, as it “frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.” Lenin’s socialism was one rooted in materialism, historical analysis, class consciousness, and scientific discovery.
With this understanding in mind, what is a socialist’s proper attitude towards religion? Lenin broke it down into two major components: the private (relating to the individual) and the political (relating to the party). He summed up this distinction well in a brief passage: “We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our party is concerned.”
In relation to the private, Lenin struck a chord reminiscent of the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire and John Locke, demonstrating that Marxism (and Leninism) is not a rejection of the Enlightenment, but a manifestation of its better aspects. Lenin believed that “everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule.” Lenin advocated for liberty of conscience, wherein every person can believe or not believe without the fear of government intrusion. Additionally, Lenin declared that “complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church.” Religions, in effect, should be “absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state.” The lesson here for us in the 21st century is that a viable socialist project is one that defends individual rights while fighting for the common cause of the working class, i.e. emancipation from the capitalist mode of production.
Where Lenin stepped beyond the eighteenth century conception of religious liberty is his view that socialists are, “as a rule,” atheists. While many socialists in history have been atheists of one stripe or another (Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman), there is a Christian socialist tradition that he dismisses. It’s not out of malice, but rather ideology. Marxism, traditionally, has largely been an atheistic worldview. Marx himself rejected religion on materialist grounds, arguing that if societies developed beyond scarcity, religious feelings would dissipate and organized religion itself would wither. Lenin saw his conception of atheism as an extension of Marx’s, hence his pronouncement that socialists are generally atheists. It should be emphasized here that, like science, there is no “royal road” to socialism. Socialists come from many different backgrounds and belief systems, so it is important for us as left humanists to understand and embrace these differences.
Lenin, grasping the importance of movement building and solidarity, grasped the value in supporting religious movements whose interests align with the socialists. In 1905, within the tumult of an emerging revolution, the “police-ridden feudal autocracy” of Russia forced Russian Orthodox members to spy on citizens. They protested the move and Lenin enthusiastically supported their actions. “We socialists must lend this movement our support,” he said, “carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusions, making them stick to their words about freedom, demanding that they should resolutely break all ties between religion and the police.” Like Lenin in 1905, the socialists of today must support religious groups who yearn for their freedoms in an open society, especially when it involves fighting the police state.
In contrast with the private view of religion, Lenin maintained that the role of the party is to support not only the separation of church and state, but use its influence to rid society of malevolent religious beliefs and practices. Since a “party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class,” he writes, “such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance, or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs.” The party acts as an institution of critical thinking, wherein members use their position to educate others on the harmful absurdities of superstitious thinking, what Lenin calls the “struggle against every religious bamboozling of the workers.” It also acts as a disseminator of knowledge. Since a party’s outlook should be materialist, according to Lenin, its party programme “necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism,” namely “the publication of the appropriate scientific literature.” Taking a cue from Engels, Lenin advocates for a party “to translate and disseminate the literature of the eighteenth-century French Enlighteners and atheists.” (He returns to this idea in “On the Significance of Militant Materialism.”)
However, Lenin acknowledged the limits of propaganda with regards to the religious question. While education is vital, the material conditions of a society must also change in order for secularism to thrive, precisely because those conditions created the religious impulse in the first place. “It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness,” Lenin wrote, “to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” This passage reinforces Lenin’s view that religion is a product of material forces, and as such, will only wither away when those material forces are restructured by a united working class for the benefit of all.
Lenin, who valued working class solidarity, understood dividing the proletariat along religious lines for party purity as impractical and disastrous. Admitting to a party some of the working class whose religious beliefs coincide with a commitment to science and class struggle was a necessity. Additionally, he stressed that the religious question should only be addressed when appropriate, specifically when it relates to material forces and class struggle. He deemed it foolish to split the burgeoning proletariat “on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development” and that only in unity “the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.” The secular humanist left, therefore, should be direct about its lack of religious beliefs and commitment to a naturalist, materialist view of the world. Yet, we should not use our convictions as a cudgel with which to harm those of religious beliefs, nor do they preclude us from working with religious organizations on raising class consciousness and advocating for a post-capitalist world.
The 1917 “October Revolution'', which overthrew the bourgeois government instituted after the fall of the Tsars, brought Lenin to the center of political power. “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” written five years after the revolution, continued Lenin’s exploration of religion amidst the Bolshevik party’s attempt to build “actually existing socialism.” Pod Znamenem Marksizma, or Under the Banner of Marxism, was a journal established in 1922 with the goal of “popularizing militant materialism and atheism,” as mentioned in the notes of Lenin’s selected works. Lenin’s essay was a rejoinder to one written by fellow revolutionary Leon Trotsky, published in the journal’s inaugural issue. “In such a deeply fractured, critical, and unstable era as ours,” Trotsky wrote, “education of the proletarian vanguard requires serious and reliable theoretical foundations.” Those theoretical foundations must be materialist, “so that the greatest events, the powerful tides, rapidly changing tasks, and methods of the party and state do not disorganize his consciousness and do not break down his will before the threshold of his independent responsible work.” Like Lenin, Trotsky insisted that education, of both Marxist and non-Marxist texts, led to the development of a flourishing, socialist society.
Lenin began his article praising Trotsky’s remarks and reiterating the importance of a broad education in materialism. Communists and non-Communists, who are nevertheless committed to materialism, should align to advance their educational goals. This partnership represented a forward move in revolutionary actions, specifically in relation to Lenin’s concept of the “vanguard.” As Paul D’Amato wrote in Socialist Worker, “Lenin's concept of the ‘vanguard’ party is the simple idea that working-class militants and other activists who have come to the conclusion that the whole system must be dismantled must come together into a single organization in order to centralize and coordinate their efforts against the system.” However, the vanguard would itself be democratic and open to outside influences. Lenin reaffirmed this position when discussing alliances with non-Communists:
A vanguard performs its task as vanguard when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward. Without an alliance with non-Communists in the most diverse spheres of activity there can be no question of any successful communist construction.
This is especially true on the issue of education. Lenin defended the rich history of materialist thinking in Russia and declared, “it is our absolute duty to enlist all adherents of consistent and militant materialism in the joint work of combating philosophical reaction and the philosophical prejudices of so-called educated society.” The lesson for us today is that secular humanists must align and support those who defend the materialist view of reality and history, to fight against the forces of idealism and ahistoricism, what Lenin (quoting Joseph Dietzgen) named the “graduated flunkeys of clericalism.”
Another indispensable element of Lenin’s framework regarding materialism and education is “militancy,” which refers to “the sense of unflinchingly exposing and indicting all modern ‘graduated flunkeys of clericalism’, irrespective of whether they act as representatives of official science or as freelances calling themselves ‘democratic Left or ideologically socialist’ publicists.” Publications dedicated to materialism should not pull punches when it comes to critiquing ideas, those who propagate them, and their relationship to society. In that vein, militancy has two components: militant materialism and militant atheism. Militant materialism emphasizes the “connection between the class interests and the class position of the bourgeoisie and its support of all forms of religion on the one hand, and the ideological content of the fashionable trends on the other.” In other words, it grounds philosophical, literary, and scientific currents in material conditions and class structures. Militant atheism is just what it sounds like: clearly and unapologetically defending a non-theistic worldview.
Lenin’s militancy might sound like something akin to the “New Atheism” of intellectuals like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, but it is nothing of the sort. Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and many others of this camp critique religion almost exclusively on ideological grounds, ripping it from the contexts of history and political economy. It’s also expressed in a way that resorts to racism, xenophobia, and imperialism, things Lenin stood strongly against. Lenin’s militant atheism, on the other hand, arises from Marxism and probes the material forces that developed and inculcated religions. He also doesn’t use atheism as a pretext to defend bourgeois political projects, like imperialism or colonialism. It’s a left atheism, rooted in the materialist process and completely different from the ahistorical, anti-materialist bromides of the New Atheists.
Alas, atheism is challenging for many to adopt, especially in the working class. This is why broad literacy in the materialist thinkers of the past holds such a large place in Lenin’s conception of revolutionary politics. Like in “Socialism and Religion,” Lenin advocated in “Militant Materialism” for the translation and dissemination of “the militant atheist literature of the late eighteenth century for mass distribution among the people.” As these writers were clearly not Marxists, Lenin acknowledges their limitations and advocates for annotated editions that contextualize these thinkers; doing so provides the public with “most varied atheist propaganda material...from the most diverse spheres of life” Thus, militant materialism is only developed via Marxist and non-Marxist thought working in tandem to educate modern society, providing readers with incisive critiques of religion. It would be to the detriment of the working class and its development to ignore these valuable readings.
In contrast to the classic writings of atheism, Lenin decried the “modern scientific critics of religion” who “almost invariably ‘supplement’ their own refutations of religious superstitions with arguments which immediately expose them as ideological slaves to the bourgeoisie.” He provided two examples demonstrating this trend. The first is Professor Robert Y. Wipper, who, in his book, The Origin of Christianity, relayed the relevant science refuting archaic superstitions while refusing to take a position on said mysticism. He claimed to be “above both ‘extremes— the idealist and the materialist.” Lenin, cutting through the cant, called this waffling on religious matters “toadying to the ruling bourgeoisie, which all over the world devotes to the support of religion hundreds of millions of rubles from the profits squeezed out of the working people.” Marxists should be consummate materialists, Lenin asserted, and ideological fence-sitting of this kind was not to be tolerated.
The second example cited by Lenin comes from German intellectual Arthur Drews and his book, The Christ Myth.** Drews argued in this work that Jesus Christ, as a historical figure, never existed, yet advocated for a “renovated, purified and more subtle religion” that would withstand “the daily growing naturalist torrent.” Like with Wipper, Lenin lacked patience with this viewpoint, as it only reinforced traditional religious structures and existing class dynamics. “Here we have an outspoken and deliberate reactionary,” Lenin quipped, “who is openly helping the exploiters to replace the old, decayed religious superstitions by new, more odious and vile superstitions.” Nevertheless, Lenin encouraged translating and disseminating works from Drews and others like him, as they were vital to the struggle against even more reactionary forces of religious belief.
On a practical level, Lenin still actively encouraged Marxists to ally with “the progressive section of the bourgeoisie” in the “struggle against the predominating religious obscurantists.” He sees Drews’ mistakes as akin to those of the eighteenth-century writers, and to reject the value of Drews’ work would be denying the worth of the enlightenment thinkers. This is an interesting point to linger on. Lenin, the ur-example of militant materialism and Marxism, still saw the work of non-Marxists as vital to the struggle for better conditions, both intellectually and materially. Despite flaws, their views still provided immense worth to the movement. It is the role of Marxists to expose these errors while also championing their better ideas. Lenin presented a crucial lesson for left humanists: despite our own misgivings about some religious ideas, we shouldn’t reject collaborating with religionists who share our goals. Whether we’re encouraging people to leave religious fundamentalism or uniting on a common cause like universal healthcare, humanists and religionists can cooperate for the improvement of society. Lenin’s mixture of ideological orthodoxy and practical policy is a superb example of the dialectical thinking vital to a conception of left-wing secular humanism.
Alongside considerations of non-Marxist philosophy or history informing the working class on materialism, Lenin maintained that the advancements of modern science and its practitioners should also play a role. Militant materialism, in his estimation, should forge an “alliance with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and scepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.” Additionally, modern scientists should be educated in dialectical materialism, the philosophical framework developed by Marx and Engels (following Hegel) that emphasizes the complex interactions of materials forces that create our real, lived experience. Thus, scientists engaged in research should review the dialectical writings of Hegel, Marx, and Engels and apply them systematically, which, as Lenin pointed out, would inoculate them against “intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion” who “‘stumble’ into reaction.” Much like Marxist philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar argued decades later, Lenin recoginzed the integrative power of dialectical philosophy as indispensable, since “natural science is progressing so fast and is undergoing such a profound revolutionary upheaval in all spheres that it cannot possibly dispense with philosophical deductions.”
V. I. Lenin’s “militant materialism”, while contentious, provides essential lessons to left secular humanists on the variegated interaction between religion and socialism. As a theorist of the political party, Lenin advocated for the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, and political participation with religionists, while defending atheism and materialism as core value propositions of the Marxist left. In regards to mass education, Lenin encouraged the dissemination of materialist and atheist writers, Marxist and non-Marxist, as a means of growing the working class’s conception of secularism. In true dialectical fashion, Lenin’s ideas are a study in contrasts. He’s an ideologue dedicated to a steadfast conception of materialism and a pragmatist when it comes to movement building and consciousness raising. With this, he’s following Marx and Engels, who advocated the same thing in the Communist Manifesto. While not everything he champions might translate to our struggles today, Lenin’s secularism, materialism, and atheism nevertheless leaves a clear and influential example for us to learn from.
* It is not the place of this essay to litigate the horrors that emerged from the Stalinist period. For a Marxist analysis of Lenin and the period after his death, see Rob Sewell’s excellent essay, “In Defense of Lenin” (2014).
** Mythicism, or the belief that Jesus Christ was not a historical person, is a hotly-debated subject within the broader secular community, though not within traditional historical scholarship. The fact that Lenin may have entertained this idea is intriguing, to say the least. To learn more about mythicism and its issues, see Bart Erhman’s book, Did Jesus Exist? (2012).
Justin Clark is a Marxist public historian and activist. He holds a B.S. in History/Political Science from Indiana University Kokomo and a M.A. in Public History from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His graduate research focused on orator Robert Ingersoll and his contributions to Midwestern freethought. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Instagram at @justinclarkph.
This article was first published by Justin Clark's Blog.
The oppressed and their ruling class oppressors have an anti-dialogical relationship with one another, which is to say there is no meaningful dialogue that occurs between them. Instead, the ruling class lays sole claim upon all of the knowledge, norms, and rules that govern our society. In place of a dialogical discourse with the oppressed, the ruling class prescribes authoritative narratives to them. This is how the ruling class is able to exert and maintain their domination of the world, and in doing so, deny any chance for a transformative, radical, and liberating revolution. The ruling class conceals the possibilities of full liberation by “gifting” the oppressed a minimalistic range of rights and liberties that are purely legalistic in constitution and devoid of any economic considerations. This has to be stopped. But how?
In what follows, I will attempt to answer this question by advancing a Marxist program for revolutionary vanguard pedagogy. In the first section of this paper, I will elucidate Karl Marx’s distinction between a limited form of freedom, known as “political emancipation,” from a more maximal approach, which he calls “human emancipation.” Additionally, I will introduce Paulo Freire’s pedagogical theorization of the “banking model” of education, which stands in contrast to his formulation of a “problem-posing” method. I will also argue here that political emancipation, as a purely legalistic configuration of rights and liberties, is the only sort of “liberation” that can be conferred to the oppressed by the ruling class. Human emancipation will not be gifted to the oppressed – it must be fought for. In the second section of this paper, I will present the aforementioned pedagogical principles as they relate to revolutionary theory. To do this I will draw upon the works of Vladimir Lenin in conjunction with Freire. In the final section of my paper, I will discuss the differences between these two theorists when it comes to matters concerning the proper timing for vanguard action. Here I will favor Lenin’s skepticism towards a subservience to spontaneity over Freire’s dedication to patience. As such, this paper is centered on what I propose to be the paramount responsibility of revolutionary vanguard leadership, namely, to educate, agitate, and awaken the oppressed
Section I: The “Gift” of Political Emancipation
The oppressed cannot rely on their oppressors to bestow upon them the kinds of rights and liberties that are necessary to achieve their full liberation. For this reason, Marx distinguishes two forms of emancipation in his essay “On the Jewish Question.” On the one hand, there is political emancipation, which is purely legalistic and particularly limited in scope and scale. On the other hand, there is human emancipation, which requires the abolition of economic oppression. Human emancipation necessitates this in addition to the attainment of civil rights and liberties for everyone, and as such, can be understood as a maximalist approach towards freedom.
As a formal liberal judicial model of rights, political emancipation occurs when the ruling class grants civil rights and liberties to people through the supposed universal application of law, thereby bringing disenfranchised groups into the already existing social-political superstructure. While on face-value this sounds freedom affirming, it in truth only offers a limited conception of equality. This is because political emancipation ignores the consideration of one’s class and is devoid of any concern for one’s material relations. In short, political emancipation is purely legalistic in composition.
As a result, political emancipation conceals oppression by giving it a more human face. Indeed, I argue alongside Marx that juridical equality masks other forms of social inequality. While those who are politically emancipated may be free in a sense of the word, they may still remain unfree in material matters. To put it another way, even if all citizens are equal on political grounds, they can still be unequal economically. As a consequence, the ruling class has divided human life into two; the individual in the political realm, and the individual in civil society. The former is regarded as a citizen of a community who is the bearer of abstract rights. The latter individual is regarded as an isolated monad who is merely concerned with their own private affairs.
However, this is not to say that political emancipation should not be sought after in our struggle for liberation. In fact, quite the contrary is true. While political emancipation may not be sufficient for the liberation of the oppressed, it is a necessary condition of such. This is because a free and equal society requires the political emancipation of all people. But even if people are politically equal there still might be underlying social inequalities that obstructs a fully exhaustive explication of justice and fairness. For this reason, political emancipation should be considered as only an inclusionary measure, and not a liberatory one. Political emancipation is a great step towards emancipation, but it is only that - a step. Human emancipation requires great leaps forward instead.
Most notably, methods of prescription are integral to the oppressed-oppressor relationship. I find that this is a direct consequence of the way in which the ruling class manages any discourse that pertains to the knowledge, norms, and rules of how a society functions. Freire designates this as the “banking model” of education. In the banking model, knowledge is considered to be a gift that is given from the teacher to the student. Consequently, the banking model of education enables the ruling class to narrate and dictate information to the oppressed, who in turn are only able to passively receive and listen to these commands. Ultimately, the banking model culminates into practices in which the ruling class acts as the teachers, while the oppressed are categorized as students who are to be controlled.
Additionally, in the banking model of education, the teacher narrates a certain set of content to their students. Here, the task of the teacher is to deposit into the students minds a series of fixed knowledge, norms, and rules, as if their minds were empty containers to be filled. In turn, the student’s job then is to record, memorize, and repeat the information given to them. These students are not permitted to reflect or engage with this content. In this model it is not for the student to ask why two times two equals four, but rather, only to know that it simply is four.[i] In light of this, the banking model can be said to be quite mechanistic in composition.
Subsequently, the ruling class has taken the banking model as the way in which the knowledge, norms, and rules of society are applied, presenting themselves as the teachers, while at the same time positioning the oppressed as their students. Anti-dialogical by its very nature, the banking model has been so successful for the ruling class because there is no room for any participation on the side of the oppressed, with the exception of absorbing what is dictated to them. As a result, the banking model does not allow the oppressed to actively participate and transform the world around them.
This makes the banking model a particularly dangerous pedagogical approach, as it allows the ruling class to place limitations on the rights and liberties that the oppressed can have. At best, political emancipation is the only form of freedom that can be advanced when the ruling class is permitted to act as teachers who have the exclusive authority to prescribe knowledge, norms, and rules. The ruling class utilizes these pedagogical tactics to ensure their complete control of all our social-political actions and behaviors. In this worldview, it is not for the oppressed to ask or challenge why we must continue to live in a capitalist society, but only to know that it simply is the case that we do.
With the backing of the banking model of education the ruling class is able to prohibit all potential revolutionary changes. Simply put, the ruling class uses the banking model to make the possibility of human emancipation untenable. However, it should be noted that a revolution is not a project in which one liberates another. The ruling class cannot and will not lead us in the struggle to overcome oppression. To believe the oppressors would liberate the oppressed is indeed a naive notion. This is why the oppressed must not rely on the knowledge given to them by the ruling class. As Freire attests, “Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift” (47). Emancipation cannot be gifted to the oppressed because the ruling class places strict limitations on what kind of emancipation can be achieved in their social-political system. Even though political emancipation has traditionally come from the ruling class by way of integrating citizens into their fold, there is no question that human emancipation cannot come from within this currently existing superstructure.
As such, the oppressed cannot use the State apparatus as a means of liberation. In the essay “The Civil War in France” Marx insists that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (Marx, 302). To put this another way, the oppressed cannot replace the bourgeois State with a proletariat State, as this would simply be a transference of domination. This would only amount to a substation of power and would not necessarily promote the end of oppression as such. Rather than reconstructing social-political power, an organization such as this merely rearranges it. Hence, the conditions of human emancipation would not be sufficiently met by the creation of a proletariat State. In sum, a full form of freedom cannot be achieved through the mere rearrangement of society, rather, it must be completely reconstructed anew.
The conditions needed for the total negation of alienation and exploitation requires the destruction of the oppressor State apparatus. On these grounds, Marx postulates two distinct movements that must occur prior to the actualization of a truly free and equal society. First, the bourgeois State must be smashed. This can be achieved through revolution. The second movement is the withering away of the new State. But what does this mean and how does it happen? While there is no simple or singular answer to this riddle, it must be asserted that the withering away of the oppressor State can only happen when every person is given the opportunity to engage in dialogical discourse and action with one another.
With all of this in mind, I will now argue that any attempt to liberate the oppressed must involve their active and reflective participation in how society is shaped. For this reason, members of revolutionary vanguard leadership cannot rely on the same pedagogy used by the ruling class. According to Freire, the oppressed should not be dictated “liberatory” propaganda, nor can they be told what to think or how to act. Instead, Freire asserts the best route to freedom occurs when there is constant and continual dialogue between all members of society. Revolutionary leaders cannot act as banking model teachers in relation to the oppressed, for they must instead enter into a co-intentional form of education with them. This is the only way to combat the contradictions that exist between the student and the teacher - the oppressed and the oppressor - as posited by the ruling class. Thus, communication should be acknowledged as having paramount significance for all matters concerning revolutionary liberation.
When dialogical discourse happens, both parties become teachers and students equiprimordially. As Freire states, “Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers” (Freire, 80). Freire calls this form of dialogue between teachers and students the “problem-posing model” of education. As the problem-posing model is dialogical, it stands in direct contrast with the banking model. Whereas the banking model teacher prescribes information to students, the problem-posing teacher-student discovers knowledge alongside their fellow student-teachers. Freire says this about the problem-posing teacher-student, “Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other” (Freire, 80). Freire’s interpretation of a liberatory pedagogy therefore does not place the oppressed student as a passive listener, but rather, as a critical and active participant. Through dialogue, trust, and love the problem-posing model allows the student-teacher and the teacher-student to work together with one another as co-authors of knowledge, norms, and rules.
Overall, education is dialogical if students can contribute to the discourse at hand and it is anti-dialogical when they cannot. Indeed, dialogical action necessitates the possibility of participation. In short, the “Banking education resists dialogue; problem-posing education regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality. Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers” (Freire, 83). This is valuable insight for those who are involved in the revolutionary struggle. From this interpretation we can see that when vanguard leaders fight apart from the oppressed it can only amount to fighting for liberation for themselves and not the people.
It follows then, revolutionary leaders cannot adhere to the banking model in order to gain support from the people. Their pedagogy cannot be a top-down approach, as this would mirror the model of the oppressor-oppressed. Freire writes on this matter, “The revolutionary's role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people - not to win them over” (Freire, 95). Fundamentally, the role of the revolutionary leader is not one of salvation, but instead, of encouragement.
Section II: The Responsibilities of the Revolutionary Vanguard Leadership
Since human emancipation cannot and will not be gifted to the oppressed, a revolution towards such must be fought for. But who is to do the organizing for these endeavors, and how should it be done? I propose that this is the responsibility of those who are conscious of issues of class, that is, the revolutionary vanguard leaders. But as I have stated earlier, the way in which a vanguard organizes themselves with the oppressed cannot be done in the same manner that the ruling class does. Instead, they must rally the oppressed in a dialogical fashion. To organize or mobilize the oppressed by means of manipulation, or without them altogether, would be a contradiction of human emancipation, and thus, could not be considered a revolutionary movement. These false vanguards may have different objectives than the ruling class does, but there can be no road to liberation if their pedagogical practices align with the banking model of education. Dialogue and participation from the people is what distinguishes a revolution from a military coup. Leaders of a coupes do not have dialogue with the people, it is done “for” the people. But an attempt to carry out the revolution “for” the people is the same as to carry out the revolution without them, and will never result in the manifestation of human emancipation. Again, it must be stressed: liberation is not a gift, it must be fought for.
According to Freire, the strive for one’s freedom is not a concession that can be bestowed upon the oppressed by revolutionary leadership, as it is something that they must become convicted of on their own accord. Yet, Freire notes the average and everyday person is oftentimes not socially or politically conscious. As a result, he advises revolutionary leaders to wait and bide their time patiently, striking only when a mass of people are class conscious. He writes on the matter:
It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses (Freire, 94).
As we can see from Freire’s account, revolutionary leaders cannot make up the minds for the oppressed, for this is what the oppressor does. Therefore, for Freire, a true revolutionary leader does not impose their values on others.
Accordingly, Freire believes revolutionary leaders should not deposit communiques and programs of action to the oppressed. He writes, “There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them” (Freire, 94). Hence, the oppressed, as masters of their own education, must compose their own program of freedom. Freire continues, “By imposing their word on others, they falsify that word and establish a contradiction between their methods and their objectives” (126). It is clear Freire maintains the position that revolutionary leaders cannot truly know what the oppressed desire by themselves. They can come to an agreement about what sort of freedom they think the oppressed should have, but this is not the same as the oppressed having knowledge on such matters for themselves. In this respect, a revolution built around the pillars and programs of the revolutionary leaders becomes the vanguard’s revolution, and not the revolution of the oppressed. Freire argues that in an instance such as this revolutionary leaders merely replace the role of the bourgeois so they may carry out their own vision of society.
It is here that I disagree with Freire. I believe that revolutionary leaders should not wait until the time comes when the oppressed awaken from their socially and politically conscious slumber. Nor can vanguards keep revolutionary discourse to themselves. The indifference towards class consciousness on the part of the oppressed is one of the main reasons why revolutionary movements have moved so slowly and progressed so little. As such, the first task of the vanguard is to cultivate this theory. Then they must educate, agitate, and awaken the oppressed.
The problem is then, how should revolutionary leaders educate the oppressed? As problematic as this issue may be, it is clear that we cannot rely on the oppressed to spontaneously formulate the decision to revolt. According to Lenin, revolutionary potential is fundamentally hindered by a subservience to spontaneity. He proclaims we cannot look to spontaneity for a chance at a revolution, as spontaneity is what we have ‘at the present moment.’ For Lenin, an adherence to spontaneity only advances the continued subordination of bourgeois ideology. In other words, spontaneity can only lead us to more domination of bourgeois social-political systems. This line of thought is marked by the thinking, “there can be no other way; there is no alternative!” Adherence to the status-quo is easy for the oppressed to follow because it is so entrenched in their daily life and way of thought. This is why Lenin argues that a revolutionary movement must combat spontaneity. I agree with Lenin on this issue.
Yet, it cannot be denied that class consciousness exists by way of spontaneity to a certain extent. This is evident when workers go on strike, or when they demand better wages, working conditions etc. However, this is what Lenin calls “trade-unionism,” which is not the same as a class consciousness proper. Per Lenin, “The spontaneous working-class movement is by itself able to create (and inevitably does create) only trade-unionism, and working-class trade-unionist politics is precisely working-class bourgeois politics” (Lenin, 125). Accordingly, trade-unionism should be considered as class consciousness in its embryonic form. Demands and strikes show flashes of consciousness, yet not the full awakening of such. Indeed, spontaneity can only develop this minimal level of class consciousness. Nevertheless, trade-unionism is a good thing, insofar as without it the oppressed lack any hope for progress. But these demands do not lead us to a true challenge against the oppressor-superstructure. Similar to political measures of emancipation, trade-unionist demands do not show knowledge about the antagonisms of class struggle, and as such, they are fundamentally limited when compared to human emancipation.
Vanguards are therefore needed because the oppressed are not yet at their height of class consciousness. The aim of the vanguard then, is to help the oppressed develop class consciousness in order to promote a movement that stands in opposition to the oppressor ruling class. In this way, the vanguards task is to prepare the oppressed for revolution. This means revolutionary leaders should spread their understanding of socialism with fervor and zeal to the average and everyday person. The potential for revolution gains momentum by awakening the oppressed to this cause.
One of the greatest weaknesses to any revolutionary momentum is the lack of consciousness among most people. Indeed, it appears as if the oppressed are content with political emancipation alone. But this is simply because they have not awakened to the realization that human emancipation is an imperative of justice and fairness. Thus, the task of the vanguard is to educate the oppressed about their political and social standing.
Aiming at this goal, Lenin advises revolutionary leaders to use what is known as “exposure literature.” This is the use of leaflets, manifestos, and other writings devoted to exposing the truth of the oppressor-oppressed relationship. The aim of exposure literature is to rouse the oppressed into an awareness of their current material social conditions. For this reason, exposure literature should be utilized to create a stance against the ruling class. Lenin even considered exposure literature to be a declaration of war against the bourgeois status-quo. This is because it is through these writings that the oppressed can become better acquainted with the alienation and exploitation that they suffer at the hands of the ruling class. For once the oppressed learn about the possibility of full liberation through human emancipation the scraps of humanity granted by the ruling class in the form of political emancipation will no longer be satisfactory. These works of agitation should help expand and deepen the demands of the oppressed. Correspondingly, vanguards, as revolutionary theorists, are called upon to publish works that expand upon and intensify the political exposures of the oppressed.
To stress, a revolution cannot be spontaneous. For a revolution to happen there needs to be an attempt at such. Human emancipation will not simply arise out of nowhere, and it will definitely not be gifted by the ruling class. It is therefore the responsibility of the revolutionary vanguard to educate, agitate, and awaken the oppressed out of their social-political slumber and help them achieve a sense of class consciousness.
Section III: Patience or Agitation?
Emancipation, as I have argued, cannot be gifted by the oppressor. As we have seen, there exists a relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor that is fundamentally anti-dialogical. This is because the oppressed are currently unable to be meaningfully involved in the formation of society. In order for the oppressed to gain such a role requires a radical revolution in which they are encouraged to become a part of society as active members. Through the works of Marx and Freire, we learn that this cannot come about through a mere reversal of roles. Moreover, through the works of Marx and Lenin we learn that while political emancipation and trade unionism are good steps in the right direction, they are only that - steps. To gain either of these is no great leap towards liberation, as they are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for such.
How we reach the manifestation of human emancipation is what is at stake now. Whereas Lenin argues that the oppressed need to be agitated from without, Freire contends that revolution requires patience. Lenin makes the charge that agitation is the only route out of trade unionism, while Freire claims that such a position isolates the revolutionary leadership from the oppressed. Who then, is correct?
If we are led to believe as Freire does, we might lose the potential for a more immediate revolution. This is because Freire wants revolutionary leaders to tread cautiously and patiently towards revolution. For Freire, revolution must be a desire of the oppressed which must come about by their own fruition. This line of thinking has both its merits and its pitfalls. If a revolution is initiated by the people it will take on a much more authentic character than if it was not. In this way, a revolution is truly made by the oppressed. Freire envisions the oppressed entering into dialogue with each other to decide what form of liberation they themselves want, and is not something that is directed “for” them. Assuredly, this has a strong dialogical characteristic about it. Patience of this sorts is beneficial in remaining cognizant of the desires of the oppressed. As Freire argues, any sort of revolution that is not aware of such matters falls under the banking model of education. This is undoubtedly the case when revolutionary leaders treat the knowledge that they hold of class consciousness as a gift. This is why Freire comes to the conclusion that no matter how well intentioned this gift of revolutionary knowledge is, an approach such as this will ultimately result in the banking model, thereby continuing the tradition of oppression.
However, as Lenin reckons, spontaneity cannot be relied upon for revolutionary struggle. Spontaneity has created the conditions of present society, which is anything but revolutionary. To be sure, spontaneity has resulted in the mass adherence to the status-quo, and is allied with the forces of pacification. Modern capitalist society has become increasingly structured around the notion of the “pacification of the proletariat.” This is all to say that a large number of the oppressed have become pacified in regard to their social and material conditions. While members of the oppressed might understand themselves as oppressed, they might at the same time be content with their lot in life. Why revolt against the superstructure when they can go home and watch Netflix? Why enter into a political dialogue with anybody when they can play the latest version of Angry birds? Why care about the massive inequalities of wealth in the world when they can consume whatever they want from the comfort of their couches, with free two-day shipping? In other words, liberation is hard, turning on the television is easy. Capitalism has become extremely efficient at quelling thoughts of dissent by way of increased modes of commodification. Everything is commodified in the eyes of capital, which consequently results in the consent of the continuation of the oppressors strangle on knowledge, norms, and rules of society. The oppressed do not see themselves as such, but rather as a consumer. The oppressed have thus become complacent with the status-quo. With such complacency, many oppressed wonder why they should even bother being political at all?
This is exactly why exposure literature and measures of agitation on the part of revolutionary leaders is so important. Problem posing education should be used to rouse the oppressed from their complacency with bourgeoisie rule. The oppressed need to be awakened out of their current state of mind, or else they will forever remain subjugated. As I have stated previously, the commodification of all aspects of life has made it extremely difficult for many members of the oppressed class to see themselves as beings who are alienated and exploited. Exposure literature and agitation serves as the rod that revolutionary leaders can use to pry the oppressed out of this state of slumber. It is likely that nothing will change if we are to stick to the rule of spontaneity. This is not to say, however, that the revolutionary leader should act “for” the oppressed. They may rouse them into a state of dissent, but they cannot act alone. Revolution requires action from the people. To act without the people and without dialogue is not a revolution, it is a military coupe.
Given the current state of social-political affairs, it seems as if there is little hope for a radical and revolutionary struggle that is guided by the desire for human emancipation, if there is any at all. This is because the ruling class has complete control over the knowledge, norms, and rules that govern our society. This is done through the prescription of the banking model of education, which allows the oppressors to garner total control of the kinds of freedom the oppressed can obtain. A limitation such as this prevents the possibility of full human emancipation.
On these grounds, it is the responsibility of the revolutionary vanguard leadership to educate, agitate, and awaken the oppressed out of their slumber, guiding them into an awareness of class struggle. But as I have maintained, a vanguard pedagogy cannot mimic the banking model tactics used by the ruling class. A revolution cannot be done “for” the oppressed, and as such, they must be given the capability to dialogically engage in the discourse regarding the arrangement of societies knowledge, norms, and rules.
The question arises then, is Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard theory anti-dialogical? I hold the position that it is not. As Lenin demonstrates, agitation is not the same thing as telling someone what to do. Agitation involves exposing the social and political conditions of the oppressed. It remains the decision of the oppressed what to do with that information. Agitation is important because without it many members of the oppressed would fall into the complacency set forth by spontaneity. Agitation is not anti-dialogical, as it encourages participation in dialogue. Indeed, without agitation there is likely to be no dialogue. Agitation is done so that the oppressed may enter into dialogue with the oppressed. Agitation is not done as a narrative monologue, as is the case in the banking model. Agitation is done as a problem-posing dialogue. Agitation serves to initiate the conversation between those with class consciousness and those without. In short: agitation is a call to dialogue.
 Marx defines “political emancipation” as that which occurs when “The state abolishes, in its own way, distinctions of birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it declares that birth, social rank, education, occupation, are non-political distinctions, when it proclaims, without regard to these distinction, that every member of the nation is an equal participant in national sovereignty, when it treats all elements of the real life of the nation from the standpoint of the state” (Marx, 8).
 Marx writes on the issue, “The limits of political emancipation are evident at once from the fact that the state can free itself from a restriction without man being really free from this restriction, that the state can be a free state without man being a free man” (Marx, 7).
 Per Marx, “Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person” (Marx, 21).
 According to Freire, “Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual's choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescribers consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor” (Freire, 47).
 Freire provides us with this definition, “This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” (Freire, 72).
 For more on this see Marx’s essay “The Civil War in France.”
 As Freire implores, “Those truly committed to the cause of liberation can accept neither the mechanistic concept of consciousness as an empty vessel to be filled, nor the use of banking methods of domination (propaganda, slogans—deposits) in the name of liberation” (Freire, 77).
 Freire provides us with this definition, “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (Freire, 83).
 Cautiously, Freire advises revolutionary leaders to “not go to the people in order to bring them a message of "salvation," but in order to come to know through dialogue with them both their objective situation and their awareness of that situation” (Freire, 95)
 See (Lenin, 67) for more on this.
 For Lenin, “This shows that the “spontaneous element,” in essence, represents nothing more nor less than. consciousness in an embryonic form… The strikes of the nineties revealed far greater flashes of consciousness… The revolts were simply the resistance of the oppressed, whereas the systematic strikes represented the class struggle in embryo, but only in embryo” (Lenin, 74).
 See (Lenin, 120) for more.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Marx, Karl. Karl Marx Selected Writings. Edited by Lawrence Hugh Simon, Hackett, 1994.
Vladimir, Lenin. Essential Works of Lenin: “What Is to Be Done?” and Other Writings. Edited by Henry M. Christman, Dover Publications Incorporated, 1987.
Robert Scheuer is a Social Ecologist from Southeast Michigan. He received a M.A. in Philosophy from Eastern Michigan University, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Michigan State University. His research is concentrated on Social Ecology, Marxism, anarchism, and Phenomenology. He also has substantial research interests in Aesthetics, Existentialism, and Philosophy of Education.
A group of men and a boy carrying groceries during the Seattle general strike, February 7, 1919. | Museum of History and Industry, Seattle.
The Centennial of the Russian Revolution
November 7, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state. To commemorate the occasion, People’s World presents a series of articles providing wide-angled assessments of the revolution’s legacy, the Soviet Union and world communist movement which were born out of it, and the revolution’s relevance to radical politics today. Other articles in the series can be read here.
Just before Christmas, on December 21, 1917, a strange freighter pulled into Elliott Bay in Seattle. This vessel bore an unfamiliar flag—a red flag. This was a Russian ship, the Shilka, out of Vladivostok, Russia. Only a few weeks before, on November 7, a Bolshevik revolution had taken place in Russia and its leader, Vladimir Lenin, proclaimed a workers’ and farmers’ state.
The Seattle city fathers were disturbed by this sight. After all, they had just gone through a tumultuous lumber strike. Several local issues were stirring the AFL Central Labor Council. What was the purpose of this ship? Rumors circulated that it carried weapons and gold to foster a revolution in Seattle and the U.S.
The U.S. had just entered WWI, the “Great War,” back in April, and patriotic fervor was at a high pitch. And the new revolutionary government had declared peace with our German enemy. This ship could be a potential threat.
Given these fears, port authorities refused to allow the Shilka to land, and it sat stranded in the harbor. But the ever resourceful Bolshevik sailors managed to sneak ashore and make contact with the IWW and the labor movement. (Some of the socialist sailors had lived in the U.S. and spoke English.)
Eventually, the ship docked at Pier 5. Rather than guns and gold, investigators found the cargo to be beans, peas, and licorice root—destined for Baltimore. And, oh yes, some suspicious Russian vodka laced with red peppers.
By this time, of course, newspaper headlines around the country screamed about the “Bolshevik ship of mystery” and IWW plots. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs commented, “Everything that happens nowadays that the ruling classes do not like is laid at the feet of the IWW.”
Seattle’s socialist newspaper, the Socialist Daily Call, regularly carried articles about the Shilka by journalist Anna Louise Strong. Although the AFL Central Labor Council was critical of the IWW, the Seattle Union Record also expressed concern for the Russian sailors and how they were being treated. The Central Labor Council also drafted a letter to Russian workers expressing their fraternal greetings and best wishes to all who aspired to “establish a true and free industrial democracy” in Russia. The Tacoma IWW wrote a message cheering the revolution and declaring their support for a “worldwide industrial commonwealth based on the brotherhood of man.”
Nicolai Kryukov, a Bolshevik from the sailor’s committee, met with IWW members a number of times and spoke at their meetings about the revolution and what it hoped to achieve. The members, probably led by lumberjack Roy Brown, wrote a congratulatory message to Russian workers: “To Nicholai Lenin and the Representatives of the Bolshevik Government and Through Them to the Workers of Russia.” The sailors carefully secreted the letter on their ship.
As the ship left port on January 5, a crowd of over 200 well-wishers cheered. A band played La Marseillaise—one of the anthems of the Russian workers then. The sailors also carefully secreted messages from the IWW and the Seattle Central Labor Council, to be delivered in Vladivostok.
Following the ship’s departure, there was a right-wing backlash in which the offices of the Socialist Daily Call were burned to the ground and several local radicals were arrested.
The Shilka docked in Vladivostok, and the newspaper Red Banner printed the IWW letter on March 20, 1918. The message from the Seattle Central Labor Council had been entrusted to the non-Bolshevik captain, who apparently jumped ship during refueling in Japan. Nothing more was heard from him, and the letter was lost to history.
In November 1920, Kryukov met Lenin at a conference. Lenin told him that he had read the letter and answered it. When he learned that Kryukov and his comrades had been on the ship, Lenin warmly embraced him.
Lenin had written his reply on August 26, 1918. It was a very dark and dangerous time for the Russian Revolution. Armies from the U.S., Britain, France, and Japan had invaded Russia in an attempt to crush the revolution. Insurgent generals Kolchak, Wrangel, Denikin, Yudenich, and others initiated civil war aimed at restoring the Czarist autocracy.
U.S. troops had landed in Murmansk and later, beginning in August 1918, in Vladivostok. By the end of September, there were 7,500 U.S. troops operating out of Vladivostok. About 3,000 Canadian and Australian troops were sent by Britain. Kolchak ran a hideously brutal “government” which appalled the allied troops. A Canadian soldier wrote, “However much one may deprecate the Bolshevik methods, we Canadians in Siberia could neither hear or see anything which inspire in us any confidence in the Kolchak government… There came to our ears stories of the workings of that government which savored more of Caesar Borgia that any democratic government.”
The main contingent of troops in Siberia, however, came from Japan. Estimates of the Japanese forces ran as high as 70,000 troops. It became obvious that the Japanese were interested in reclaiming Siberian lands lost in previous wars with Russia.
When the Germans signed the armistice ending WWI on November 11, 1918, U.S. and other occupying troops remained in Russia, not leaving until January 1920. The Japanese remained until 1922—and continued to occupy Sakhalin Island, which the Soviets recaptured in 1945.
But what of Lenin’s letter to the American workers?
A 1935 edition of Lenin’s “Letter to American Workers,” from International Publishers.
What Lenin desperately needed was for U.S. troops to be removed from Siberia and for aid to counterrevolutionaries to be stopped. He recognized the importance of the U.S. in the Allied Coalition—and as a future trading partner.
When Lenin finished his letter, the question became how to deliver it? Again, it was a Russian seaman who was called upon to sail to America and see that the letter was published. He was also given a secret letter to President Woodrow Wilson from Lenin, who called for peaceful and friendly relations. (Wilson never revealed the contents of this letter.)
Lenin’s letter to American workers was handed to John Reed, who had just returned from Russia, and who set about getting the letter printed in socialist newspapers far and wide.
So what did Lenin have to say in his Letter to American Workers?
First, he sought to make connections between the American Revolution of 1776 and the Russian Revolution of 1917:
“The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.”
Lenin also commented on the U.S. Civil War:
“The American people have a revolutionary tradition which has been adopted by the best representatives of the American proletariat, who have repeatedly expressed their complete solidarity with us Bolsheviks. That tradition is the war of liberation against the British in the eighteenth century and the Civil War in the nineteenth century. In some respects, if we only take into consideration the ‘destruction’ of some branches of industry and of the national economy, America in 1870 was behind 1860. But what a pedant, what an idiot would anyone be to deny on these grounds the immense, world-historic, progressive and revolutionary significance of the American Civil War of 1863-65!
“The representatives of the bourgeoisie understand that for the sake of overthrowing Negro slavery, of overthrowing the rule of the slave owners, it was worth letting the country go through long years of civil war, through the abysmal ruin, destruction, and terror that accompany every war. But now, when we are confronted with the vastly greater task of overthrowing capitalist wage-slavery, of overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie—now, the representatives and defenders of the bourgeoisie, and also the reformist socialists who have been frightened by the bourgeoisie and are shunning the revolution, cannot and do not want to understand that civil war is necessary and legitimate.”
Pointing to the revolutionary and socialist traditions of American workers, he added:
“The American workers will not follow the bourgeoisie. They will be with us, for civil war against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the world and of the American labor movement strengthens my conviction that this is so. I also recall the words of one of the most beloved leaders of the American proletariat, Eugene Debs, who wrote in the Appeal to Reason, I believe towards the end of 1915, in the article, “What Shall I Fight For” (I quoted this article at the beginning of 1916 at a public meeting of workers in Berne, Switzerland)—that he, Debs, would rather be shot than vote credits for the present criminal and reactionary war; that he, Debs, knows of only one holy and, from the proletarian standpoint, legitimate war, namely: the war against the capitalists, the war to liberate mankind from wage-slavery.”
Lenin knew, of course, that help was not on the way and that it would require a world-wide effort to guarantee the success of the Russian socialists:
“We know that help from you will probably not come soon, comrade American workers, for the revolution is developing in different countries in different forms and at different tempos (and it cannot be otherwise). We know that although the European proletarian revolution has been maturing very rapidly lately, it may, after all, not flare up within the next few weeks. We are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution, but this does not mean that we are such fools as to bank on the revolution inevitably coming on a definite and early date. We have seen two great revolutions in our country, 1905 and 1917, and we know revolutions are not made to order, or by agreement. We know that circumstances brought our Russian detachment of the socialist proletariat to the fore not because of our merits, but because of the exceptional backwardness of Russia, and that before the world revolution breaks out a number of separate revolutions may be defeated.”
Did Lenin’s article ever reach the Seattle workers? Did it somehow play a role in the General Strike of 1919? This is a yet-unsettled question, and we will leave it for another time—but one has hopes.
This article is based on a paper presented at the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
James H. Williams is a retired professor and long-time labor and community activist living in Tacoma, Washington.
This article was first published by People's World
Comrades: A Russian Bolshevik who participated in the Revolution of 1905 and for many years afterwards lived in your country has offered to transmit this letter to you. I have grasped this opportunity joyfully for the revolutionary proletariat of America — insofar as it is the enemy of American imperialism — is destined to perform an important task at this time.
The history of modern civilized America opens with one of those really revolutionary wars of liberation of which there have been so few compared with the enormous number of wars of conquest that were caused, like the present imperialistic war, by squabbles among kings, landholders and capitalists over the division of ill-gotten lands and profits. It was a war of the American people against the English who despoiled America of its resources and held in colonial subjection, just as their "civilized" descendants are draining the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of human beings in India, Egypt and all corners and ends of the world to keep them in sub- jection.
Since that war 150 years have passed. Bourgeois civilization has born its most luxuriant fruit. By developing the productive forces of organized human labor, by utilizing machines and all the wonders of technique America has taken the first place among free and civilized nations. But at the same time America, like a few other nations, has become characteristic for the depth of the abyss that divide a handful of brutal millionaires who are stagnating in a mire of luxury, and millions of laboring starving men and women who are always staring want in the face.
Four years of imperialistic slaughter have left their trace. Irrefutably and clearly events have shown to the people that both imperialistic groups, the English as well as the German, have been playing false. The four years of war have shown in their effects the great law of capitalism in all wars ; that he who is richest and mightiest profits the most, takes the great- est share of the spoils while he who is weakest is exploited, martyred, oppressed and outraged to the utmost.
In the number of its colonial possessions, English imperial- ism has always been more powerful than any of the other countries. England has lost not a span of its "acquired" land. On the other hand it has acquired control of all German colonies in Africa, has occupied Mesopotamia and Palestine.
German imperialism was stronger because of the wonderful organization and ruthless discipline of "its" armies, but as far as colonies are concerned, is much weaker than its opponent. It has now lofet all of its colonies, but has robbed half of Europe and throttled most of the small countries and weaker peoples.. What a high conception of "liberation" on either side! How well they have defended their fatherlands, these "gentlemen" of both groups, the Anglo-French and the German cap- italists together with their lackeys, the Social-Patriots.
American plutocrats are wealthier than those of any other country partly because they are geographically more favorably situated. They have made the greatest profits. They have made all, even the weakest countries, their debtors. They have amassed gigantic fortunes during the war. And every dollar is stained with the blood that was shed by mil- lions of murdered and crippled men, shed in the high, honor- able and holy war of freedom.
Had the Anglo-French and American bourgeoisie accepted the Soviet invitation , to participate in peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, instead of leaving Russia to the mercy of brutal Germany a just peace without annexations and indemnities, a peace based upon complete equality could have been forced upon Germany, and millions of lives might have been saved. Because they hoped to reestablish the Eastern Front by once more drawing us into the whirlpool of warfare, they refused to attend peace negotiations and gave Germany a free hand to cram its shameful terms down the throat of the Russian people. It lay in the power of. the Allied countries to make the Brest-Litovsk negotiations the forerunner of a general peace. It ill becomes them to throw the blame for the Russo-German peace upon our shoulders!
The workers of the whole world, in whatever country they may live, rejoice with us and sympathize with us, applaud us for having burst the iron ring of imperialistic agreements and treaties, for having dreaded no sacrifice, however great, to free ourselves, for having established ourselves as a socialist republic, even so rent asunder and plundered by German imperial- ists, for having raised the banner of peace, the banner of Socialism over the world. What wonder that, we are hated by the capitalist class the world over. But this hatred of imperialism and the sympathy of the class-conscious workers of all countries give us assurance of the righteousness of our cause.
He is no Socialist who cannot understand that one cannot and must not hesitate to bring even that greatest of sacrifice, the sacrifice of territory, that one must be ready to accept even military defeat at the hands of imperialism in the interests of victory over the bourgeoisie, in the interests of a transfer of power to the working-class. For the sake of "their" cause, that is for the conquest of world-power, the imperialists of England and Germany have not hesitated to ruin a whole of row of nations, from Belgium and Servia to Palestine and Mesopotamia. Shall we then hesitate to act in the name of the liberation of the workers of the world from the yoke of capitalism, in the name of a general honorable peace; shall , we wait until we can find a way that entails no sacrifice ; shall we be afraid to begin the fight until an easy victory is assured ; shall we place the integrity and safety of this "fatherland" created by the bourgeoisie over the interests of the international socialist revolution?
We have been attacked for coming to terms with German militarism. Is there no difference between a pact entered upon by Socialists and a bourgeoisie (native or foreign) against the working-class, against labor, and an agreement that is made between a working-class that has overthrown its own bour- geoisie and a bourgeoisie of one side against a bourgeoisie of another nationality for the protection of the proletariat? Shall we not exploit the antagonism that exists between the various groups of the bourgeoisie. In reality every European under- stands this difference, and the American people, as I will presently show, have had a very similar experience in its own his- tory. There are agreements and agreements, fagots et fagots, as the Frenchman says.
When the robber-barons of German imperialism threw their armies into defenseless, demobilized Russia in February 1918, when Russia had staked its hopes upon the international solidarity of the proletariat before the international revolution had completely ripened, I did not hesitate for a moment to come to certain agreements with French Monarchists. The French captain Sadoul, who sympathized in words with the Bolshe- viki while in deeds he was the faithful servant of French im- perialism, brought the French officer de Lubersac to me. "I am a Monarchist. My only purpose is the overthrow of Ger- many," de Lubersac declared to me. "That is self understood (cela va sans dire)," I replied. But this by no means prevented me from coming to an understanding with de Lubersac concerning certain services that French experts in explosives were ready to render in order to hold up the German advance by the destruction of railroad lines. This is an example of the kind of agreement that every class-conscious worker must be ready to adopt, an agreement in the interest of Socialism. We shook hands with the French Monarchists although we knew that each one of us would rather have seen the other hang. But temporarily our interests were identical. To throw back the rapacious advancing German army we made use of the equally greedy interests of their opponents, thereby serving the interests of the Russian and the international socialist revolution.
In this way we furthered the cause of the working-class of Russia and of other countries; in this way we strengthened the proletariat and weakened the bourgeoisie of the world by mak- ing use of the usual and absolutely legal practice of manoever- ing, shifting and waiting for the moment the rapidly growing proletarian revolution in the more highly developed nations had ripened.
Long ago the American people used these tactics to the advantage of its revolution. When America waged its great war of liberation against the English oppressors, it likewise entered into negotiations with other oppressors, with the French and the Spaniards who at that time owned a considerable portion of what is now the United States. In its desperate struggle for freedom the American people made "agree- ments" with one group of oppressors against the other for the purpose of weakening all oppressors and strengthening those who were struggling against tyranny. The American people utilized the antagonism that existed between the English and the French, at times even fighting side by side with the armies of one group of oppressors, the French and the Spanish against the others, the English. Thus it vanquished first the English and then freed itself (partly by purchase) from the dangerous proximity of the French and Spanish possessions.
The great Russian revolutionist Tchernychewski once said: Political activity is not as smooth as the pavement of the Nevski Prospect. He is no revolutionist who would have the revolution of the proletariat only under the "condition" that it proceed smoothly and in an orderly manner, that guarantees against defeat be given beforehand, that the revolution go forward along the broad, free, straight path to victory, that there shall not be here and there the heaviest sacrifices, that we shall not have to lie in wait in besieged fortresses, shall not have to climb up along the narrowest path, the most impassible, winding, dangerous mountain roads. He is no revolution- ist, he has not yet freed himself from the pendantry of bourgeois intellectualism, he will fall back, again and again, into the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
They are little more than imitators of the bourgeoisie, these gentlemen who delight in holding up to us the "chaos" of revolution, the "destruction" of industry, the unemployment, the lack of food. Can there be anything more hypocritical than such accusations from people who greeted and supported the imperialistic war and made common cause with Kerensky when he continued the war? Is not this imperialistic war the cause of all our misfortune? The revolution that was born by the war must necessarily go on through the terrible difficulties and sufferings that war created, through this heritage of destruction and reactionary mass murder. To accuse us of "destruction" of industries and "terror" is hypocrisy or clumsy pedantry, sho*vs an incapability of understanding the most elemental fundamentals of the raging, climatic force of the class struggle, called Revolution.
In words our accusers "recognize" this kind of class struggle, in deeds they revert again and again to the middle class Utopia of "class-harmony" and the mutual "interdependence" of classes upon one another. In reality the class struggle in revolutionary times has always inevitably taken on the form of civil war, and civil war is unthinkable without the worst kind of destruction, without terror and limitations of form of democracy in the interests of the war. One must be a sickly sentimentalist not to be able to see, to understand and appreciate this necessity. Only the Tchechov type of the life- less "Man in the Box" can denounce the Revolution for this reason instead of throwing himself into the fight with the whole vehemence and decision of his soul at a moment when history demands that the highest problems of humanity be solved by struggle and war.
The best representatives of the American proletariat — those representatives who have repeatedly given expression to their full solidarity with us, the Bolsheviki, are the expression of this revolutionary tradition in the life of the American people. This tradition originated in the war of liberation against the English in the 18th and the Civil War in the 19th century. Industry and commerce in 1870 were in a much worse position than in 1860. But where can you find an American so pendantic, so absolutely idiotic who would deny the revolutionary and progressive significance of the American Civil War of 1860-1865?
The representatives of the bourgeoisie understand very well that the overthrow of slavery was well worth the three years of Civil War, the depth of destruction, devastation and terror that were its accompaniment. But these same gentlemen and the reform socialists who have allowed themselves to be cowed by the bourgeoisie and tremble at the thought of a revolution, cannot, nay will not, see the necessity and righteousness of a civil war in Russia, though it is facing a far greater task, the work of abolishing capitalist wage slavery and overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie.
The American working class will not follow the lead of its bourgeoisie. It will go with us against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the American people gives me this confidence, this conviction. I recall with pride the words of one of the best loved leaders of the American proletariat, Eugene V. Debs, who said in the "Appeal to Reason" at the end of 1915, when it was still a socialist paper, in an article entitled "Why Should I Fight?" that he would rather be shot than vote for war credits to support the present criminal and reactionary war, that he knows only one war that is sanctified and justified from the standpoint of the proletariat: the war against the capital- ist class, the war for the liberation of mankind from wage slavery. I am not surprised that this fearless man was thrown into prison by the American bourgeoisie. Let them brutalize true internationalists, the real representatives of the revolutionary proletariat. The greater the bitterness and brutality they sow, the nearer is the day of the victorious proletarian revolution.
We are accused of having brought devastation upon Russia. Who is it that makes these accusations? The train-bearers of the bourgeoisie, of that same bourgeoisie that almost completely destroyed the culture of Europe, that has dragged the whole continent back to barbarism, that has brought hunger and destruction to the world. This bourgeoisie now demands that we find a different basis for our Revolution than that of destruction, that we shall not build it up upon the ruins of war, with human beings degraded and brutalized by years of war- fare. O, how human, how just is this bourgeoisie!
Its servants charge us with the use of terroristic methods. — Have the English forgotten their 1649, the French their 1793? Terror was just and justified when it was employed by the bourgeoisie for its own purposes against feudal domina- tion. But terror becomes criminal when workingmen and poverty stricken peasants dare to use it against the bourgeoisie. Terror was just and justified when it was used to put one exploiting minority in the place of another. But terror becomes horrible and criminal when it is used to abolish all ex- ploiting minorities, when it is employed in the cause of the ac- tual majority, in the cause of the proletariat and the semi-pro- letariat, of the working-class and the poor peasantry.
The bourgeoisie of international imperalism has succeeded in slaughtering 10 millions, in crippling 20 millions in its war. Should our war, the war of the oppressed and the exploited, against oppressors and exploiters cost a half or a whole million victims in all countries, the bourgeoisie would still maintain that the victims of the world war died a righteous death, that those of the civil war were sacrificed for a criminal cause.
But the proletariat, even now, in the midst of the horrors of war, is learning the great truth that all revolutions teach, the truth that has been handed down to us by our best teachers, the founders of modern Socialism. From them we have learned that a successful revolution is inconceivable unless it breaks the resistance of the exploiting class. When the work- ers and the laboring peasants took hold of the powers of state, it became our duty to quell the resistance of the exploiting class. We are proud that we have done it, that we are doing it. We only regret that we did not do it, at the beginning, with sufficient firmness and decision.
We realize that the mad resistance of the bourgeoisie against the socialist revolution in all countries is unavoidable. We know too, that with the development of this revolution, this resistance will grow. But the proletariat will break down this resistance and in the course of its struggle against the bourgeoisie the proletariat will finally become ripe for victory and power.
Let the corrupt bourgeois press trumpet every mistake that is made by our Revolution out into the world. We are not afraid of our mistakes. The beginning of the revolution has not sanctified humanity. It is not to be expected that the working classes who have been exploited and forcibly held down by the clutches of want, of ignorance and degradation for cen- turies should conduct its revolution without mistakes. The dead body of bourgeois society cannot simply be put into a coffin and buried. It rots in our midst, poisons the air we breathe, pollutes our lives, clings to the new, the fresh, the living with a thousand threads and tendrils of old customs, of death and decay.
But for every hundred of our mistakes that are heralded in- to the world by the bourgeoisie and its sycophants, there are ten thousand great deeds of heroism, greater and more heroic because they seem so simple and unpretentious, because they take place in the everyday life of the factory districts or in se- cluded villages, because they are the deeds of people who are not in the habit of proclaiming their every success to the world, who have no opportunity to do so.
But even if the contrary were true, — I know, of course, that this is not so — but even if we had committed 10,000 mistakes to every 100 wise and righteous deeds, yes, even then our re- volution would be great and invincible. And it will go down in the history of the world as unconquerable. For the first time in the history of the world not the minority, not alone the rich and the educated, but the real masses, the huge majority of the working-class itself, are building up a new world, are deciding the most difficult questions of social organization from out of their own experience.
Every mistake that is made in this work, in this honestly conscientious cooperation of ten million plain workingmen and peasants in the re-creation of their entire lives — every such mistake is worth thousands and millions of "faultless" successes of the exploiting minority, in outwitting and taking advantage of the laboring masses. For only through these mistakes can the workers and peasants learn to organize their new existence, to get along without the capitalist class. Only thus will they Be able to blaze their way, through thousands of hindrances to victorious socialism.
Mistakes are being made by our peasants who, at one stroke, in the night from October 25 to October 26, (Russian Calen- dar) 1917, did away with all private ownership of land, and are now struggling, from month to month, under the greatest difficulties, to correct their own mistakes, trying to solve in practice the most difficult problems of organizing a new so- cial state, fighting against profiteers to secure the possession of the land for the worker instead of for the speculator, to car- ry on agricultural production under a system of communist farming on a large scale.
Mistakes are being made by our workmen in their revolutionary activity, who, in a few short months, have placed prac-tically all of the larger factories and workers under state ownership, and are now learning, from day to day, under the greatest difficulties, to conduct the management of entire in- dustries, to reorganize industries already organized, to over-come the deadly resistance of laziness and middle-class reac-tion and egotism. Stone upon stone they are building the foundation for a new social community, the self-discipline of labor, the new rule of the labor organizations of the working- class over their members.
Mistakes are being made in their revolutionary activity by the Soviets which were first created in 1905 by the gigantic upheaval of the masses. The Workmen's and Peasant's Soviets are a new type of state, a new highest form of Democracy, a particular form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a mode of conducting the business of the state without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie. For the first time democracy is placed at the service of the masses, of the workers, and ceases to be a democracy for the rich, as it is, in the last analysis, in all capitalist, yes, in all democratic republics. For the first time the masses of the people, in a nation of hundreds of millions, are fulfilling the task of realizing the dictatorship of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat, without which social- ism is not to be thought of.
Let incurable pedants, crammed full of bourgeois democrat- ic and parliamentary prejudices, shake their heads gravely over our Soviets, let them deplore the fact that we have no direct elections. These people have forgotten nothing, have learned nothing in the great upheaval of 1914-1918. The com- bination of the dictatorship of the proletariat with the new democracy of the proletariat, of civil war with the widest ap- plication of the masses to political problems, such a combina- tion cannot be achieved in a day, cannot be forced into the battered forms of formal parliamentary democratism. In the Soviet Republic there arises before us a new world, the world of Socialism. Such a world cannot be materialized as if by magic, complete in every detail, as Minerva sprang from Jupi- ter's head.
While the old bourgeoisie democratic constitutions, for in- stance, proclaimed formal equality and the right of free as- semblage, the constitution of the Soviet Republic repudiates the hypocrisy of a formal equality of all human beings. When the bourgeoisie republicans overturned feudal thrones, they did not recognize the rules of formal equality of monarchists. Since we here are concerned with the task of overthrowing the bourgeoisie, only fools or traitors will insist on the formal equality of the bourgeoisie. The right of free assemblage is not worth an iota to the workman and to the peasant when all better meeting places are in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Our Soviets have taken over all usable buildings in the cities and towns out of the hands of the rich and have placed them at the disposal of the worknien and peasants for meeting and organi- zation purposes. That is how our right of assemblage looks — for the workers. That is the meaning and content of our Soviet, of our socialist constitution.
And for this reason we are all firmly convinced that the Sov- iet Republic, whatever misfortune may still lie in store for it, is unconquerable.
It is unconquerable because every blow that comes from the powers of madly raging imperialism, every new attack by the international bourgeoisie will bring new, and hitherto unaf- fected strata of workingmen and peasants into the fight, will educate them at the cost of the greatest sacrifice, making them hard as steel, awakening a new heroism in the masses.
We know that it may take a long time before help can come from you', comrades, American Workingmen, for the develop- ment of the revolution in the different countries proceeds along various paths, with varying rapidity (how could it be otherwise!) We know fullwell that the outbreak of the Europ- ean proletarian revolution may take many weeks to come, quickly as it is ripening in these days. We are counting on the inevitability of the international revolution. But that does not mean that we count upon its coming at some definite, nearby date. We have experienced two great revolutions in our own country, that of 1905 and that of 1917, and we know that revo- lutions cannot come neither at a word of command nor accord- ing to prearranged plans. We know that circumstances alone have pushed us, the proletariat of Russia, forward, that we have reached this new stage in the social life of the world not because of our superiority but because of the peculiarly reac- tionary character of Russia. But until the outbreak of the in- ternational revolution, revolutions in individual countries may still meet with a number Of serious setbacks and overthrows.
And yet we are certain that we are invincible, for if humanity will not emerge from this imperialistic massacre broken in spirit, it will triumph. Ours was the first country to break the chains of.imperialistic warfare. We broke them with the great- est sacrifice, but they are broken. We stand outside of imper- ialistic duties and considerations, we have raised the banner of the fight for the complete overthrow of imperialism for the world.
We are in a beleaguered fortress, so long as no other interna- tional socialist revolution comes to our assistance with its ar- mies. But these armies exist, they are stronger than ours, they grow, they strive, they become more invincible the longer im- perialism with its brutalities continues. Workingmen the world over are breaking with their betrayers, with their Gompers rand their Scheidemanns. Inevitably labor is approaching communistic Bolshevistic tactics, is preparing for the prole- tarian revolution that alone is capable of preserving culture land humanity from destruction.
We are invincible, for invincible is the Proletarian Revolution.
This Letter was republished from Wikisource
Historically, Marxism has been perceived to be inexorably hostile to religion and especially to Christianity (since Marxism grew up in the Christian West). Nowadays most non-Marxists think Marxism is hostile to all religions and looks down on those who have religious beliefs. There are others today who think Marxism has become more mellow and is either neutral about religion or even somewhat encouraging in its attitudes towards some religious opinions. I hope to show that a contemporary Marxist position will incorporate some of both these perceptions.
The basic Marxist position was first enunciated by Marx as long ago as 1843 in his introduction to a "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law."
This work contains the famous "opium of the people" remark. More pithy than Lenin's "Religion is a sort of spiritual booze", which I am sure it inspired.
What did Marx mean by calling religion an opiate? Being a materialist, Marx of course holds to the view that religion is ultimately man made and not something supermaterial or supernatural in origin. "Man makes religion," he says.
Man, or better, humanity is not, according to Marx, some abstract entity, as he says, "encamped outside the world." In the world of the early nineteenth century the masses of people lived in horrendous societal conditions of poverty and alienation and lived lives of hopeless misery. This was also true of Lenin's time, as well as of our own for billions of people in the underdeveloped world as well as millions in the so called advanced countries.
The social conditions are reflected in the human brain ("consciousness") and humans living in such conditions construct their lives according to these reflections (ideas). These social conditions and ideas give rise to forms of culture, political states, and ideas about the nature of reality and the meaning of it. Marx says, "Religion is the general theory of that world... its universal source of consolation and justification."
The world we live in is one of exploitation and the human spirit or "essence" appears in a distorted and estranged form. This is all reflected in religion as if it (the human spirit or essence) had an independent existence rather than being our own self-creation out of our interactions with the terrible societal conditions in which we find ourselves.
In order to improve our conditions we must struggle against the imperfect social world and the ideas we have in our heads that that world has placed there and which reinforce its hold on us. This leads Marx to say. "The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."
This is the background to Marx's view of religion as an opiate. The complete quote is: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
Lenin remarks that this dictum "is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion." (CW:15:402) Marx has more to say than this, however. It is possible to misinterpret Marx's intentions by not going beyond this dictum. Let's see what else he has to say.
Remember that Marx said that struggle against religion was indirectly a fight against an unjust and exploitative world. Religion is an opiate because it produces in us Illusions about our real situation in the world, the type of world we live in, and what, if anything, we can do to change it. The struggle against religion is not just an intellectual struggle against a system of beliefs we think to be incorrect. Marxists are not secular humanists who don't see a connection between the struggle against religion and the social struggle.
This is why Marx maintains that, "The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions." That is to say, he wants to abolish religion in order to achieve real happiness for the people instead of illusory happiness. We will see that when Marx, Engels or Lenin use the word "abolish" they do not mean that the government or any political party should use force or coercive measures against people who are religious.
What they have in mind is that since, in their view, religion arises as a response to inhumane alienating conditions, the removal of these conditions will lead to the gradual dying out of religious beliefs. Of course, if the Marxist theory on the origin of religion is incorrect, then this will not happen and religion will not be abolished.
At any rate, this is what Marx means when he says, "Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."
We should also keep in mind that in addition to the theory of the origin of religion, Marx, Engels and Lenin were most familiar with organized religion in its most reactionary form as a state supported church representing the most unprogressive and backward elements of the ruling classes. "Quakers", for example, does not appear as an entry in the subject index to Lenin's Collected Works.
They are not thinking about religion as a positive force as we might today: as for example the Quakers in the antislavery movement or the Black church in the civil rights movement. [Although Engels had positive things to say about early Christianity in the time of the Roman Empire.] These would have appeared to them as aberrations confined to a very tiny minority of churches.
Sixty six years after Marx published his remarks on religion, Lenin addressed these issues in an article called "The Attitude of the Worker's Party to Religion" (CW:15:402-413), published in the paper Proletary in 1909.
In his article, Lenin categorically states that the philosophy of Marxism is based on dialectical materialism "which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion." There is no room for prisoners here! "Marxism has always regarded," he writes, "all modern religions [he remembers Engels liked the early Christians] and churches, and each and every religious organization, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class."
I don't think we could have that opinion today. I mentioned above the role of the Black churches in the civil rights movement and we also know of many religious organizations and churches that have been involved in the peace movement and have taken stands in favor of workers rights and other progressive causes. In dialectical terms, what in 1909 appeared as two contradictory approaches has now become, in many cases, a unity of opposites. While Lenin's comments are, I think, on the whole still correct about the role of religion, we must admit that there are now many exceptions and that Lenin would probably not formulate his views on religion in quite the same way today.
Be that as it may, religion would still be seen as an illusion to overcome by a proper materialist worldview. This does not mean that Lenin would have been hostile towards people having religious beliefs. He is very clear, following Engels, that to wage war against religion would be "stupidity" and would "revive interest" in it and "prevent it from really dying out."
The only way to fight religion is by basically ignoring it and simply carrying on the struggle against the modern system of exploitation (capitalism). Those so-called revolutionaries who insist on proclaiming that attacking religion is a duty of the workers' party are just engaging in "anarchistic phrase-mongering."
We have to work with all types of people and organizations to build the broadest possible democratic people's coalition. Still following Engels views, Lenin says the proper slogan is that "religion is a private matter." Elsewhere he writes ["Socialism and Religion" in the paper Novaya Zhizn in 1905: CW:10:83-87], that to discriminate "among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable."
He maintains the state should not concern itself with religion ("religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority") and that people "must be absolutely free to profess any religion" they please, including "no religion whatever" (atheism). Would that socialist states (among others), past and present, followed Lenin's philosophy on this matter.
Lenin sounds positively Jeffersonian! Jefferson in his second inaugural address (1804) proclaimed, "In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government."
This is in line with Jefferson's 1802 comments about the "wall of separation between church and state." And what does Lenin say? He says the "Russian Revolution must put this demand into effect"! "Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church."
However, what is true for the state and the citizen is not true for the worker's party. Religion is a private matter in relation to the state but not in relation to the party. To think otherwise, Lenin says, is a "distortion of Marxism" and an "opportunistic view." Therefore, the party must put forth its materialist philosophy and atheistic world view and not try to conceal it from view. But this propaganda "must be subordinated to its basic task-- the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters."
This basic task also means that workers with religious views must not be excluded from joining the party, and, indeed we "must deliberately set out to recruit them." Not only do we want to recruit them as part of the work of building a mass movement and mass party, "we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions."
People are educated in struggle not by being preached to. This means that valuable party time should not be taken with fruitless debates on religious issues, but with organizing the class struggle. Finally, Lenin says there "is freedom of opinion within the party" but this does not mean that people can use this freedom to disrupt the work of the party.
So, I conclude that, outside of the realm of theory, Marxists are not hostile to religion per se and are willing and eager to work together with all types of progressive people, religious or not, who will struggle with them in the current fight against the ultra-right and in the eventual fight, of which the current struggle is a part, for the establishment of socialism.
About the Author:
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
This article was originally published in 2005 by Political Affairs
In 1891 the Russian economist V.Y. Postnikov published "Peasant Farming in South Russia." Two years later, while living in Samara, the young Lenin (he was 23) studied and reviewed Postnikov’s work. The resulting study, "New Economic Developments in Peasant Life", is Lenin’s earliest surviving work. Lenin’s interest in peasant farming was motivated by the desire to understand the capitalist relations penetrating the Russian countryside.
In his review, Lenin described the relationship of the market to capitalist relations of production. With regard to the prosperous peasants of South Russia, Lenin wrote that they "possess considerably more than the average quantity of means of production," and their labor is "more productive, [they] are the principle growers of agricultural produce in the district, and predominate over the remaining groups." Lenin considered their economic organization to be "commercial in character" and "largely based on the exploitation of hired labour."
In his review of Postnikov, Lenin observes that "the soil in which the above described phenomena grow is production for sale." At the root of "the struggle of economic interests arising among the peasantry is the existence of a system under which the market is the regulator of social production."
This early review of Lenin sheds light on the discussion of the socialist market economy. Some maintain that such an economy is transitional to full socialism. China, however, which has a socialist market economy, claims to already be a socialist country not one transitioning to socialism.
One of the sources of this lack of clarity may be that some people base their notion of the socialist market economy on "classical" Marxism and may thus be very likely to view the socialist market economy as a euphemism for capitalism. But the Chinese Communist Party states that "Socialism with Chinese characteristics is based on yet different from socialism as defined by Marx." Thus using only the "classical" theories of Marxism-Leninism the socialist market economy as practiced in China will not appear to be socialist. This conclusion is, I think, borne out by the following analysis of Lenin’s work on the market question.
Soon after his study of Postnikov in 1893 Lenin moved to St. Petersburg and became involved with a group of Marxists who called themselves "the ancients." Here he wrote his second major work On the So-Called Market Question. Krupskaya, Lenin’s future wife, tells us this work made a profound impression as the views being expressed in the Marxist study groups at the time were taking on abstract and mechanical characteristics. According to Krupskaya "The question of markets had a close bearing on the general question of the understanding of Marxism."
Early in this essay Lenin reminds us that Marx, in Capital, has established "that in capitalist society, the production of means of production increases faster than the production of means of consumption." But what is this "capitalist society" Marx writes about? In a brilliant sketch of its development, Lenin maintains that capitalism is the stage of commodity production in which, as discovered by Marx, human labor power becomes a commodity.
There are two stages in this development of capitalism. The first is the evolution of the natural economy developed by the producers themselves into an economy of commodity production. This first stage is the result of the division of labor. The second stage is the further development from commodity production into capitalism: an economy where commodities are specifically produced for a market where competition results in the ruin of weaker commodity producers, the creation of wage-workers from the ranks of the losers, and the growth of monopoly.
Lenin stressed the development of capitalism because the major social critics of his day were spokespersons for the interests of the peasantry – the so-called Narodniks. This term was a nickname for various groups attempting to prove that Russia would by-pass the capitalist stage of development and move into some form of peasant socialism based on primitive communal land ownership.
In his analysis of the "market" Lenin makes three conclusions and two observations still relevant to contemporary discussions. First, the division of labor and the market are necessarily linked together. Thus we see that the market is the center of the economic system arising from commodity production which has, up to now, been called "capitalism."
Second, capitalism is based on the labor market and it produces, of necessity, an impoverished mass of actual and potential wage workers from the small producers who have been ruined by the growth of monopoly. This bloated labor market, where there are more workers than jobs, keeps labor costs low, leads to the enrichment of the capitalists, and an expansion of the market.
Third, due to ruthless competition between the capitalists they are forced to expand their system and gain control of new markets.
After drawing these conclusions, Lenin remarks that there are two supplemental points which must be noted: 1) the market needs the workers to buy the commodities it produces and at the same time it forces as best it can the worker’s wages down – that is, the market wants to pay as little as possible for the worker’s commodity – labor power. Marx called this one of the most fundamental contradictions of capitalism. 2) Even though the market impoverishes the workers, this is relative since as capitalism advances it must satisfy, more or less, the rising expectations of the population "including the industrial proletariat."
When Lenin wrote On the So-Called Market Question the Russian Revolution was 24 years in the future, but the progressive intellectuals could see that the Russian autocracy was doomed – it was politically and economically anachronistic in comparison to the general level of European development. What type of system would replace it was an open question. What Lenin clearly saw, even at the age of 23, was that before speculation on the future of Russia could be profitably indulged in, a thorough and accurate understanding of the real nature of Russian socio-economic conditions had to be mastered. Thus, without in-depth knowledge of the social conditions of the peasants, any transfer of Western models, especially the Marxist model, would be fruitless. Nor, on the other hand, would it be possible to refute the "home-grown" models of the Narodniks.
Are these reflections on the Russian peasantry and the market, now over 100 years old, still relevant? Is impoverishment going on in China today? A recent New York Times article observes that up to 200 million peasants have to find supplemental employment in China’s cities – but many are cheated out of their wages without any means of obtaining their rights. These workers, responsible for about 40 percent of the income in the countryside have been cheated out of $12 billion in wages.
At the same time the productive forces have developed dramatically and the Communist Party’s economic policies have lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty and has put China on the road to abolishing poverty entirely. Lenin stated that living standards (requirements) do improve by the development of the market – at least for some sections of the population, but capitalism would not solve the problems of poverty.
Is the socialist market economy a reversion to capitalism or the first step in the development of a new kind of socialism based on classical Marxist theory? I don’t have an answer to this question but it seems possible that China’s economic reforms took a step back from a rush to try and implement full socialism and that China today is not a socialist country but a country transitioning to socialism by means of a market economy controlled and guided by the Communist Party. It is not a capitalist country but one using “classical” Marxist theory modified by Chinese conditions and Leninist commitments to create a future society free of human exploitation.
About the Author:
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
This work is a republished updated version of the original article written in 2004 and published by Political Affairs.
Part 1: Presenting the Problem
The movement towards worker cooperative has been a growing one as of the last couple decades. Although worker cooperatives can take various forms, they generally are companies in which the workers are also owners of where they work. They practice democracy at work, and seek to produce not for the goal of private capital accumulation in the hands of a single owner or small group of shareholders, but rather the earnings of the company are distributed and invested according to principles of the common good of everyone involved in the project. It has truly been a point of unification were socialist, communist, anarchist, radical liberals, and followers of catholic social teaching have all argued in favor of it as a more just form of enterprise structure to the traditional hierarchical capitalist firm. Beyond the fact that these coops are more just, practice has shown that they are usually more economically efficient and robust; the best current example is the Mondragon Corporation, founded by Father José María Arizmendiarrieta in 1956 in the Basque region of Northern Spain.
There is a common misconception by some Marxist who speak about the promotion of cooperatives as un-Marxist. Their central argument is that a struggle for worker cooperatives while under capitalism is essentially an attempt to find Narnia; a magic door which in the other side you have a fictitious world of non-exploitative relations, where the central worker/owner dichotomy is destroyed. Their problem is essentially not with cooperatives in themselves, but rather with cooperative projects (and their promotion) under capitalism. They believe these projects distract from the class struggle and seek a way to find an alterative world within the real world, instead of changing the real world towards the alternative world we envision. Thus, the problem itself is not Narnia, but Narnia existing, as a strange loophole, within the non-Narnia world. My goal in this paper is to address this misconception and demonstrate that whether within or without a capitalist structure, worker cooperatives represent a reality that can be properly labeled as socialist. To do this, I will be referring to the thought the fathers of scientific socialism had on the topic. Not as an appeal to authority on the question of cooperatives, but to demonstrate how the Marxist rejection of worker cooperatives is based on a faulty appeal to authority. I will attempt to show how Marx, Engels, and Lenin all viewed worker cooperatives, both within capitalism or as an envisaged post-capitalist reality, as socialist.
Before we begin, I feel it is important to address another false dichotomy about worker cooperatives and Marxist theorization of it. That is that it stands as an alternative to State centrally planned socialism. The phrasing of cooperatives as an “alternative” produces the idea that a socialist state can either be based on a cooperative economy, or one that is centrally planned by the state. This is not only theoretically but practically a false dichotomy. Cooperative ownership has been a major form of property in really existing socialisms. Specifically, it has had its major impact in the spheres of agriculture. During the initial loosening up of the blockade on Cuba by the Obama administration, Cuba opened up the possibility for non-agricultural cooperatives. These cooperatives instantly gained popularity and within just a year 452 of them developed, playing an essential role in Cuba leading Latin America in 2015 with a GDP growth of 4.438. The point is, there is already a strong cooperative past in really existing socialist states, a past which like Mondragon, helps us see the efficiency of cooperative ownership, within and beyond agricultural areas. This would demonstrate in practice that socialist experiments are not categorizable by the fixed set of categories of cooperative and state owned, given that both forms of property have coexisted successfully. It is also important to recognize this false dichotomy excludes other forms of property which are inherently anticapitalistic, and which exist and can help provide a base for socialist experiments. Such is the case of indigenous communal property, which Marx at the end of his life had already seen as having tremendous potential for the establishment of socialism in its struggle with the expansion of capitalism into those areas where those communal forms of property and mentality dominated.
I have given a rough overview of how in practice cooperative forms of property have already been essential for socialist experiments. Although this topic is worthy of expansion, we will leave that for a latter work. In this work, I want to emphasize how theoretically the movement towards worker cooperatives is not the Narnia option certain unread Marxist might believe. Rather, that it presents within capitalism an internal negation of the system, and outside of capitalism, a real form of socialist property.
Part 2: The Richard Wolff Phenomena
Before we go on to discuss the framing of cooperatives by Marx and co. let us look at how American Marxist economist Richard Wolff presents the topic. In the US, Professor Wolff’s show Economic Update averages out well over 100,000 views on YouTube each episode. The YouTube channel itself, Democracy at Work, is named after their larger project and as of today is nearing the 200,000-subscriber mark. His platform is without a doubt one of largest and most successful in the US (among Marxist spaces). And as can be inferred in the title of the project, the central focus is on the promotion of worker cooperatives and democracy at work as an alternative to the capitalist order.
In the Economic Update episode of the 24th of August, Dr. Wolff examined the relation of cooperatives, socialism, and communism, clearer than in any other episode that I am aware of. This episode, which is called China: Capitalist, Socialist or What looks at the development of socialism in the USSR and in China. Dr. Wolff here uses Lenin to state that both the USSR and China are state capitalist. He does not do so in the way in which certain western ultra-leftist do it to dismiss these experiments as non-socialist, but rather he portrays the socialist step as itself state capitalism.
To be clear, Lenin brings up state capitalism during the development of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was meant to create the conditions, in an underdeveloped Russia, for the possibility of socialism under the will of a government already dedicated to the communist cause; as opposed to withdrawing from revolutionary action until capitalism had a chance to develop (the latter was the general stance of the Mensheviks and certain European communist observing the Russian uprisings). The point here is not to dive into Soviet or Chinese history and discuss whether they were state capitalist or socialist (a fixed categorizing dichotomy I believe to be inherently anti-dialectical and thus non-Marxist), but to look at how this generalization Dr. Wolff partakes in with statements Lenin made specifically for the NEP, paints the intermediary step of socialism as synonymous with state capitalism, and cooperatives as synonymous with the following communist step.
On this topic of the transition away from capitalism and what one can call it, I think it is important to remember that as Marx states:
“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”
This quote and its analogy of the womb is quite intentional. It reflects the indestructible influence Hegel’s logic plays on Marx, specifically the dialectical categories of change (quantity and quality), and how every new qualitative transition never comes about from a void, it is always developed out and away from the previous qualitative structure. The comparison seems clear if we refer to Hegel’s Phenomenology, when in reference to the transition from a metaphysical world to a scientific one he states:
“Just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth, there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born, so likewise the spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms.”
The point of this short diversion from the topic of coops, is to make a point to the other part of what Dr. Wolff’s episode was stating. I believe his disregard for the name calling of socialist states as socialist, state capitalist, or first stage communism, stems overall from his awareness that anything that grows out of capitalism and attempts to be something new, will always, at first maintain some elements of the previous world. This influence of the “old world” if you wish to call it that, is especially potent considering it really isn’t an “old world”, at least not yet; rather, capitalism exists in as an expanded a form as ever. It is very clear then, that any socialist attempt, will not be some pure utopia as some western ultra-communist wish to believe, it will necessarily maintain faults from the previous system. In part because it grew out of it, and in part because it is still subject to a world dominated by the logic of that which it outgrew.
Part 2.1: First Answer
Dr. Wolff is someone who is well aware that cooperative property has and still exists in socialist states. So why does it seem such a unique project to have a Marxist centered promotion of coops? Well, I think there might be two answers to this question, each which is connected to the other.
First, it is obvious to anyone who has had the time to read the corpus of Marx and Engel’s work, that there is no blueprint for what a socialist economy would look like. We know that:
“Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
But this isn’t really an idea of how to structure the society, it just tells us what is obvious to any socialist; that the working class must seize political power, and that once seized it must struggle to maintain it from the reactionary forces that will attempt against the qualitative leap. The most we really get is an idea of how the state transforms into an administrative force, an idea which comes from the example Marx and Engels witnessed in the Commune. As Engels states:
“Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society, an inevitable transformation in all previous states, the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts, administrative, judicial, and educational, by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set-up.”
Here we have two transformations, the first is a democratic transformation of the representatives of the people, elected and removed through universal suffrage. This might seem to overlap with bourgeois republics, where there are elections and to some extent the masses of working people have a say. But, as Engels mentions in the paragraph right before the one previously quoted, this bourgeois electoralism is faulty in it being still an instrument of the capitalist class, and thus, the apparent democratically elected officials not only represent the interest of the capitalist class that funds them but also partake in politics for the sake of careerism and self-improvement. The second transformation is done in an attempt to destroy the possibility of the previous political careerism; this is done through the paying of politicians and state officials average working-class salaries.
Beyond this there is also the replacement of the institutions of state violence by armed groups of working people. As Marx states:
“Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a national guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”
This means that the transformation of the state is the transformation from:
“the democracy of the oppressor to the democracy of the oppressed classes, from the state as a “special force” for the suppression of a particular class to the suppression of the oppressors by the general force of the majority of the people, the workers and peasants.”
Quotes like the last few are found in numerous different places in the corpus of Marx and Engels’ work, the general idea is nicely summed up by Lenin as this “The transition from capitalism to communism certainly cannot but yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat.” I would add here, that history has shown us that not only does this dictatorship of the proletariat, or proletariat democracy (whatever makes you feel more fuzzy inside), can not only yield an abundance of political forms, but also an abundance of economic forms, one of which is the worker cooperative form.
Thus, why is there no blueprint? First, a blueprint of the structuring of socialist society would require details that would be nothing but foolish to predict. Secondly, a blueprint signifies a singular concept of socialist or communist organization. This would be an idealist generalization, that would fail to take into account the concrete material conditions in each country attempting to build socialism; in other words, a blueprint would be against the basic foundation of Marxist materialism. Thus, the only real requirement to considering a country as socialist is what is present in the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat; this is control of the state by the working class, with some aim towards a transitioning to a society based on the principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”The economic forms of property and political forms of structure that will develop are completely dependent on the concrete material and ideological conditions of the place where the development is coming about. Thus, we have the potential for socialism with Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, etc. characteristics. Each with their distinct variations of property forms and political structures, and to varying degrees moving away from the influences of their previous world.
Part 2.2: Second Answer
My second answer to the previously stated question concerning the seemingly uniqueness of Dr. Wolff’s push for cooperative socialism is that it is tactically the best strategy for achieving a post-capitalist reality in the US. The American population has endured a century of extreme anti-communist propaganda, and even though now, after 40 years of neoliberal rule and polarization of wealth, they realize the hell they are in, the psyche sickness the propaganda machine has caused will make any attempt at convincing working class American to fight for a post-capitalist reality impossible if done by means of discussing socialism in terms of a state controlled centrally planned economy. Discussing socialism in terms of democratization of the means of production, while nationalizing basic necessities and industries proves tactically the best path towards getting working class Americans on board.
This is something that I have experienced as true in my practice organizing as well. If a working-class American asks me what socialism is, or why I am a socialist, and I respond by saying the dictatorship of the proletariat or a centrally planed state economy, they will never open up to the idea. In part, this is due to Americans equating anything done by the state as useless, and thus, a system run by the state just makes since that it will be no good.
From their standpoint it is hard not to see a point, all the interaction they have had with the state has been with a state which represents a different class of people than the ones they are. It is no wonder they consider it inefficient; the American state is not supposed to be efficient for them, but rather for those who use it as an instrument for their accumulation of capital. The same capitalist class that sends their kids of to die, or comeback physically or mentally injured for the sake of their profiting from the imperial sacking of other nations.
Thus, tactically, at least at first, socialism in America must be promoted through what it really is on the level of everyday life for working class folks. This is their expansion of power, autonomy, and life. It is promoting socialism as giving them a say in their workplace; them being able to decide what is made, how, when, to who it will be sold to, and for how much. It means them not having to worry about the company being shipped over sees for cheap labor to increase the profits of their bosses, but rather they themselves being their own bosses. It means the rational solution of eliminating the unnecessary middleman. They know they make the commodities exchanged all throughout society, or that they transport them making their exchange possible; they also know they are one paycheck away from homelessness while their non-working bosses’ life is so incredibly filled with luxury they can only get an insight into it when they turn on the TV. Thus, when you approach this worker, there is nothing theoretical you can tell him he doesn’t already feel. As Bill Haywood once said, “I’ve never read Marx’s Capital, but I got the marks of capital all over my body”.
Big Bill’s statement still holds true today, perhaps truer now than in the last 50 years, given that the polarization of wealth we’ve seen has our society looking more like the 19th century than the 1950s. No longer are the 60s and 70s theories of the New Left, that consisted of how to make revolution without the working class because it was corrupted by its opportunist comfort viable for us today. If there was ever a time for revolution it is now. The accumulation is about to pop, the coming capitalist crisis, along with the pandemic, puts us in the ripe material conditions for this much necessary leap. As Lukacs states:
“In this situation the fate of the proletariat, and hence of the whole future of humanity, hangs on whether or not it will take the step that has now become objectively possible.”
The question is now one of praxis. Which tactics are we using in our organizing spaces? This is where I think Dr. Wolff’s focus on coops comes in. As previously stated, the emphasis of socialism from the perspective of workplace democracy, and not state centrally planned economy, must be the angle we use in the US. It is the only angle the American worker is desensitized in, the concept of democracy, a concept so corrupted by the west it is unrecognizable to what it really means; yet it is the only one our workers are not put to fear by. Promote socialism in the US as the expansion of workplace democracy, and the guaranteeing of the essential rights of our population (something the US is the only developed country to not do), and we are guaranteeing ourselves the best shot at creating the subjective conditions which are necessary in such an objectively revolutionary time.
Part 3: Marx, Engels, and Lenin on Cooperatives
It is possible that the same type of ‘Marxist’ I referred to earlier is saying that I have not yet shown how promoting socialism as coops is in any way Marxist. It is possible that they see my previous tactical argument explaining the Wolff phenomena, merely as an attempt I am making to find that Narnia door, avoiding the class struggle and taking the easy path of classless enterprises under capitalism. This section necessitates its division into two parts. The first will be the question of cooperatives under a capitalist society. The second will be the question of cooperatives under a post-capitalist society.
Part 3.1: Cooperatives in Capitalism
It might be easy to see the promotion of coops within capitalism the same way communist used to look at the hippie communes. Although the hippie commune and the coop are two completely different things, in the mind of the type of Marxist critics I have been talking about, both are clear example of escapism; a refusal to partake in the class struggle while retreating to a position in which the contradictions of capitalism are ameliorated in your everyday life.
Like it usually happens with all falsehoods, there is always a kernel of truth. The kernel of truth here is that cooperatives do provide a sense of ameliorating capitalist contradictions, at least for those involved in the coop. With the removal of the boss figure, you have removed the contradiction of socialized production and individual accumulation. Where does the possibility of the transcending of capitalism go if we begin to ameliorate the contradictions for a portion of the population through the promotion of cooperatives? At the end of the day, it is true that radical liberals like John Stuart Mill and John Dewey promoted these forms of firms. Could cooperatives have been the capitalist loophole Marx was unable to see? The irony of the question is that it brings to mind Karl Popper’s objection of Marxism as a science; would the coop loophole prove to be the falsifier of scientific socialism?
Before we appeal to Marx, I find it important to address this last point. This last point comes from a skepticism of coops’ status as socialism due to its acceptance as a form of property by those who do not necessarily seek to transcend capitalism. I think the duck test would work as a common sense respond to this worry. If something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like one, you must be foolish to call it a chicken just because the guy next to you who has never seen a duck and is vaguely familiar with chickens, calls it a chicken. The point is, if a firm does not have the relation of owner and worker, if the process of production and distribution of wealth is taken into consideration collectively by those participating in the socialized production, and if the mentality is not the monadic rugged individualism of capitalism but rather a collective mentality in which the individual and collective interest are complimentary, then it’s a duck; to translated away from the analogy, it is not in any way, shape, or form a capitalist relation, but rather a form of production that transcends the relations and logic of capitalism.
To reformulate the essence of the Marxist skepticism of coops, the skepticism lies usually not in the cooperative itself. Given that many if not all are able to recognize that it is not capitalist, and that a society purely based on cooperative firms with a working-class party in power could be called socialist. Their worry stems from the comfort the coop could bring about in a sector of the working masses, a comfort which might make the struggle against capitalism non appetizing for them, given that they are not really living the capitalist reality in their workplace. Their sentiment can be expressed nicely in Che’s proverb “we have no right to believe freedom can come without struggle.”
But what is being assumed when one states that a cooperative firm will bring the comfort to make possible the escape of capitalist conditions at work without struggle? Well, precisely this, that workers once they experience the comfort of a non-exploitative cooperative firm are going to retreat from the struggle against capitalism and enjoy their privilege condition as an anomaly within the system. This presupposes that the mentality of these cooperative workers is the same individualistic mentality capitalism promotes. The falsity here is that if there is something that worker cooperatives produces, more importantly than work without exploitation, is the fundamental mental shift away from the individualism of bourgeois society. A worker in a worker cooperative begins the epistemological transformation that would take place in the socialist phase, already within capitalism. This is a worker who is realizing his species essence as a being is dependent on the community, a being who comes to realize that:
“Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating their gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefor, is personal freedom possible.”
The problem has been that many of these “Marxist” have focused a bit too much on the aspects of the economic side of Marxism. They call themselves scientific, as if in doing so they are looking down on the non-scientific or ethical based communist. They have forgotten to read the early Marx. They have forgotten that it was the humanist Marx that saw the need to study economics. They have forgotten that it was Marx the philosopher that saw the problem of alienation, traced it to its economic core, and then diverged the rest of his life to the study. So, yes, it is a science, but before the science begins we have a radical humanism, focused before anything on the abolition of the estrangement of man, and on the development of this man from his alienated condition to a condition re-united with his species being. And thus, the personal development the cooperative has on the individual, the source that refutes their conclusion of retreat from the struggle, slips the conscious of these Marxist. This is given to the fact that they have forgotten and neglected the most essential part of the development towards communism; the creation of the communist man, the man that has returned to his species being at a higher level than ever before because of the productiveness and abundance capitalism brings about. This is the man the cooperative begins to develop; a man who will not only not stay put in his cooperative comfort, but who will fight with his life for his fellow man, to end their exploitation. This is a man who now has the concrete truth that a society based on equitable non exploitative productiveness is not only more just but efficient as well. Thus, the cooperative not only serves to develop the communist man that will be a secured catalyst in the struggle, but with it to develops the internal alternative that serves as a concrete possibility of the envisaging of a future beyond capitalism.
So, what is it that Marx states about cooperatives within capitalism? There is essentially two things he says. First that:
“The cooperative factories of the laborers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organization all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labor is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated laborers into their own capitalist, by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labor. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no cooperative factories. The capitalist stock company, as much as the cooperative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”
What is Marx saying here about cooperatives within capitalism? Well, that they essentially represent an internal negation to the system, the “new mode of production naturally growing out of the old”. This should remind us of his comments on the lower stage of communism from the Critique of the Gotha Program earlier, where the first stage of communism still has the birthmarks of the womb of the old society.
It is also very important to understand what is being said in the last statement. “The only distinction that the one antagonism is resolved negatively in one and positively in the other”, what does this mean? Well, to understand what this means we need literacy in Marxist dialectics. To get a direct reference to help us understand this quote, we are going to travel back to 1845 and the publishing of his and Engel’s first major work, The Holy Family. In Ch. 4 Marx states:
“Proletarian and wealth are opposite; as such they form a single whole. They are both forms of the world of private property. The question is what place each occupies in the antithesis. It is not sufficient to declare them two sides of a single whole. Private property as private property, as wealth is compelled to maintain itself, and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence. That is the positive side of the contradiction, self-satisfied private property. The proletariat, on the other hand, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, the condition for its existence, what makes it the proletariat, private property. That is the negative side of the contradiction, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property. The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in it its own powerlessness the reality of an inhuman existence. Within this antithesis the private owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletariat, the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter, that of annihilating it.”
Here, in the beautiful poetic dialectics of the young Marx, we find the key to understanding what his later self is saying in respects to stock companies and worker cooperative. In essence, stock companies represent the positive side of the antithesis, the side which seeks to actively maintain the existing capitalist relations. Therefore, worker cooperatives, represent the negative side of the antithesis, that being the side which strives for the annihilation of the existing relations as such.
Thus, his view on cooperatives in capitalism is essentially that, like the proletariat itself, it represents the aspect of the dialectic seeking to abolish the condition of the existing order. It is a form of property in direct contradiction with private property as maintained under capitalism, and whose existence and growth represents a threat to capitalism itself.
The second view Marx has on coops in capitalism is more so a tactical one. It comes from his Critique of the Gotha Program. His argument here is less optimistic, but when we analyze it closely, the loss of optimism about coops is one based on tactics, not cooperatives themselves. He states:
“That the workers desire to establish the conditions for cooperative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundations of cooperate societies with state aid. But as far as the present cooperative societies are concerned, they are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not the proteges either of the government or of the bourgeois.”.
What Marx is saying here is that if worker cooperatives are something promoted by the state or by the bourgeois class, there is no revolutionary value in them. Of course, under these conditions, the control over these experiments can very well lead to the comfort the previous mentioned Marxist might fear in coops. But, all in all, he is consistent with what he says in Capital Vol 3, by stating that if rather than being something promoted by the bourgeoisie or state it is something that grows out of the working class, then it is of revolutionary potential. This is to some extent a quite simple point, that is, only if this revolutionary action is truly an action of the revolutionary agent is it revolutionary.
A sidestep to Lenin might help us better understand this point. Lenin states:
“Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remolding contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class. That is why we are right in regarding as entirely fantastic this “cooperative: socialism, and as romantic, and even banal, the dream of transforming class enemies into class collaborators and class war into class peace (so called class truce) by merely organizing the population in cooperative societies.”
Again, the only objection here is the promotion of cooperatives as some sort of hippy commune thing which tries to alienate itself from the class struggle. But, given that exploitation will be a reality around the cooperative workers, and given the transformation they will have in their consciousness, it is indubitable that the class struggle will remain a central focus of the cooperative worker. When coops are used as fellow instruments in the class struggle, when they play their role as the negative in the whole, and if they help achieve power for the working class; then there is nothing else one can consider them but properly socialist. As Lenin states:
“Now we are entitled to say that for us the mere growth of cooperation is identical with the growth of socialism, and at the same time we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism. The radical modification is this; formerly we placed, and had to place, the main emphasis on the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power, etc. Now the emphasis is on changing and shifting to peaceful, organizational, cultural work.”
What is this cultural shift Lenin touches on at the end, if not precisely the development of man, the one that develops during and with cooperative work, and which to some extent is even required before taking upon the cooperative project. Thus, Lenin states “the organization of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture”, this holds the key to understand the statement by Marx and the source of the cooperative. If the cooperative is started by workers, it is because they have already a level of consciousness, or what Lenin here calls culture, that is essential in determining the revolutionary status of the action. But, if the cooperative is promoted by another source that is not workers, the conscious or cultural element, has failed to precede the cooperative formation, and thus the formation itself cannot be deemed revolutionary. But, when one agitates workers, and helps them realize their common interest in cooperative firms, in democracy at work, and then they take up the revolutionary action of creating cooperatives and continuing the class struggle; what is this if not precisely a revolutionary action, the manifestation of the internal negative. Thus, the promotion, differs from the creation. Promoting worker coops and having workers form them can be seen as revolutionary action. While a state or capitalist formed cooperative where workers are employed cannot be considered as a revolutionary action in itself, even though it definitely can, by its very nature, develop a revolutionary potential.
Part 3.2: Cooperatives in Socialism
This section is bound to be short, as it is obvious to any communist or socialist, that in a socialist society, a worker cooperative is in line with the ideals of the society. The difficulty was in the previous section, in address the question of withdrawal from the class struggle. Now that we have overcome that, there seems to be little rejection of cooperatives as a positive form of property under socialism. Regardless, I will fulfill my promise of providing what the fathers of scientific socialism had to say on the topic.
The clearest response to a fully cooperative society comes from Marx. The context of which is in discussion with he who calls a duck a chicken; that being the bourgeois political economist who promotes cooperative firms. Marx states that:
“Why, those members of the ruling classes who are intelligent enough to perceive the impossibility of continuing the present system, and they are many, have become the obtrusive and full-mouthed apostles of cooperative production. If cooperative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united cooperative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production, what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, “possible” communism?”
The quote speaks for itself, what is a fully cooperative society? Quite simply communism. You can call it whatever you want, it is what it is.
Let us turn to Engels now, as in a letter to Bebel he states:
“My proposal envisages the introduction of cooperatives into existing production, just as the Paris Commune demanded that the workers should manage cooperatively the factories closed down by the manufacturers.”
He then states that neither Marx nor he had:
“ever doubted that, in the course of the transition to a wholly communist economy, widespread use would have to be made of cooperative management as an intermediate stage.”
We will end with Lenin, who states that:
“Given social ownership of the means of production, given the class victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the system of civilized cooperators is the system of socialism.”
“cooperation under our conditions nearly always coincides fully with socialism.”
In this work, I hope to have demonstrated the following, 1- that cooperatives within capitalism represent a negation of the system and help promote socialism in two ways. The first is by the development it produces in its workers, the second is by the example it gives to the rest of society of the “proof that the capitalist has become no less redundant as a functionary in production as he himself, looking down from his high perch, finds the big landowner redundant.” 2- I hope to have shown that a society based on cooperatives can properly be called socialist. And 3- That tactically the promotion of socialism as cooperative or workplace democracy is the route we should pursue in our engagements and organizing of workers in America.
Citations and Side Comments.
 Rodriguez Delli, Livia. “Cooperativas no agropecuarias: de una experiencia a una novedad en Cuba” Granma, April 30, 2014. http://www.granma.cu/cuba/2014-05-19/cooperativas-no-agropecuarias-de-una-experiencia-a-una-novedad-en-cuba?page=4
GDP growth (annual %) – Latin America & Caribbean, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Cuba. The World Bank, 2015. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?end=2015&locations=ZJ-CO-CL-MX-PE-CU&most_recent_year_desc=false&start=2015&view=bar
 Wolff, Richard. Democracy at Work, September 7, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/user/democracyatwrk
 It is important to note here that Marx uses communism and socialism interchangeably. Specifically, in this work he refers to the difference as the first or lower stage of communism and the higher stage. The higher is the state in which things would be carried out “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program” The Marx-Engels Reader (W. W. Norton & Company, 1978/1875), p. 531.
 Ibid., 529.
 Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford, 1977/1807), p.6.
 Marx. Critique of the Gotha Program. p. 538.
 Engels, Frederick. “The Civil War in France: Intro” Marx-Engels Reader (W. W. Norton & Company, 1978/1891), p.628.
 “Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate and powerful sections of the nation than precisely in North America. There, each of the two major parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions. It is well known how Americans have been trying for thirty years to shake of this yoke, which has become intolerable, and how in spite of it all they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was intended to be. Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch on the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. And nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends, and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality dominate and plunder it.” Ibid., 628.
 Marx, Karl. “The Civil War in France” The Marx-Engels Reader (W. W. Norton & Company, 1978/1871), p.632.
 Lenin, V. I. The State and Revolution (Foreign Language Press, 1970/1917), p. 36.
 Ibid., 29.
 Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program. p. 531.
 Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness (MIT Press, 1979/1923), p.75
Guevara, Che. “Message to the Tricontinental” Che Guevara Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1967/04/16.htm
 Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology” The Marx-Engels Reader (W. W. Norton & Company, 1978/1932), p. 197.
 Part of the reason why Marx changes his position on Europe being the center for revolution is because even at the beginning of the 1880’s he still saw the tremendous role the subjective element of man played. Thus, when studying the anthropologist at the time, Henry Morgan, Kovalevsky, etc. he realizes the potential indigenous communities have towards the building of the higher stage of communism. The potential stems from them having never lost their collective mentality. Thus, whereas the proletarian in Europe had to develop his consciousness before any material struggle could take place, the communards of the colonized global south already had that “communist consciousness” and thus from the beginning their struggle is already an ideologically conscious one.
 Marx, Karl. Capital Vol 3 (International Publishers, 1974/1894), p. 440.
 Marx, Karl. The Holy Family (University Press of the Pacific, 2002/1845), p.51.
 Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Program. p. 536-7.
 Lenin, V. I. “On Cooperation” Collected Works, Vol 33 (Progress Publishers, 1965), p.473.
 This response is believed to be an indirect jab at John Stuart Mill’s conception of capitalism heading down the road to cooperative firms.
 Marx, Karl. The Civil War in France. p. 635.
 Engels, F. 1886. Letter to Bebel, 20-23 January, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 47. Quoted from Jossa, B Marx, Marxism, and the Cooperative Movement. (Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2005)
 Lenin, V. I. On Cooperation. p. 472.
 Marx, Karl. Capital Vol 3, p.387