Labor Poster (Maximo Pacheco, 1928)
The French Marxist Louis Althusser once wrote: “The fusion of Marxist theory and the Workers’ Movement is the most important event in the whole history of the class struggle, i.e. in practically the whole of human history (first effects: the socialist revolutions).” The importance of this fusion can be understood when we take into account the unique nature of the Workers’ Movement, which is the first historical movement that is in the interest of the majority. This is so because the proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simultaneously abolishing class society as such. Before the emergence of the proletariat, all major historical movements were led by minority interests for the immediate realization of their socially given class, for the full-fledged expansion of a developing mode of exploitation. Any subaltern revolts that took place in favor of a classless society were faced with failure due to the concrete conditions in which they took place, namely the insufficient development of the productive forces. The immaturity of the material conditions limited the alternative paths that could be followed, opening only two options: either a Communism of poverty or the replacement of one exploiting class by another. Hence, only the sustained development of the productive forces brought about by capitalism could provide for the first time in history the material possibility for the establishment of a Communism of abundance. The Workers’ Movement is the social agent that is tasked with the transition to Communism. Marxist Theory aids this transition by making the proletariat conscious of how its revolutionary victory is linked to its self-annihilation as a class, which ipso facto demands the overthrow of the entire class society. Herein lies the historical significance of the fusion of Marxist theory and the Workers’ Movement: it is the only act in human history that can abolish class divisions.
How did the fusion happen? It emerged from the scientific nature of Marxism, from “the fact that Marx produced objective knowledge of capitalist society, he understood and demonstrated the necessity of class struggle, the necessity and the revolutionary role of the workers’ movement and he supplied knowledge of the objective laws of its existence, its goal and its action. And if the workers’ movement adopted this doctrine it was because it recognized in it, in the Marxist doctrine, the objective theory of its own existence and its action, because it recognized in Marxist theory the theory which would enable it to see clearly the reality of the capitalist mode of production and its own struggles.” The doctrines advanced by Marxist theory identified with the objective interests of the working class, allowing it to overcome the distortions introduced by the workings of bourgeois society. In particular, Marxist theory helped the Workers’ Movement resolve the dialectical division between immediate objectives and ultimate goal by deeply implanting the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeois state in the trade union struggle for the masses’ material demands. In this way, Marxist theory organically integrated the ultimate goal of Communism into the planning of concrete action, clarifying how the working class could achieve its ultimate salvation.
The scientificity of Marxism, its ability to reveal the real and potential forces objectively at work in a situation, is linked to its abolition of the traditional dichotomy existing in bourgeois thought between theory and practice. Such abolition is effectuated through the conversion of theory into a practice alongside other practices. Marxism makes “its production the result of a determinant practice – a scientific practice – a practice of the transformation of raw materials (raw information) into a finished product (knowledge) through the application of determinant tools (scientific methodology and concepts).” What is distinctive about this form of theory, what gives it the status of a scientific practice, is its self-consciousness of its structural conditionedness. To borrow the words of Jason Read, Marxism formulates scientific practice “as an operation that works within the determinate conditions and constraints of its historical and political conjuncture rather than as an action that starts out from its own free possibility and dictates to the world what principles it should follow.” Unlike speculative bourgeois thought, “which founds in its purity and distance from the world the principles that the world should follow,” Marxist thought “is an operation, acting within determinate conditions in order to become autonomous, to produce effects of freedom. Liberty is not the absence of necessity, but a transformation of it.”
Insofar that Marxist scientific practice “is not a faculty of reflection, which is free to lose itself or find itself according to this or that method, but is an activity, a process that begins from determinate conditions and produces knowledge,” it feeds on the social practice of society as a whole. More specifically, the scientific practice of Marxism is dependent on the political practice of Communism. While both are decisive for the goal of proletarian revolution, they don’t interlink in a linear and horizontal way; they indicate from the point of view of their nature a relation of dominance and dependence: it is political practice which directs scientific practice, which is its conjunctural context and material frame. Through constant involvement in political practice, proletarian militants come to explore the development of the objective processes of capitalism and the degree to which this process has become manifest in its multifarious aspects and essences. This is illustrated by the trajectory of the workers’ movement. In the beginning, the working class’s knowledge of capitalist society was limited to the immediate level of the productive base, taking the form of a unity on an economic-corporate level. As Althusser notes: “the economic struggle of the proletariat developed around various themes, the most important of which were the struggle for the decrease in the length of the work day, the struggle for the defense and increase in wages, etc. Other economic themes intervened in the continuation of the history of the workers’ movement: the struggle for job security, the struggle for social funds (social security), the struggle for accident insurance, etc. In every case it was a question of a struggle carried out on the plane of economic exploitation, therefore at the level of the relations of production themselves.”
However, with the passage of time, the working class began to transcend its narrow boundaries as a professional group and started struggling on political and ideological levels, too. Althusser comments: “the economic struggle always comes up against, like it or not, political realities, which intervene directly and violently into the course of the economic struggle: in the form of the repression of protests, strikes and revolts, by the forces of the bourgeois state and the law (the police, the army, the courts, etc.); out of which arises the experience, won in the economic struggle itself, of the need for a political struggle, distinct from the economic struggle.” Since the economic struggle of the working class was ultimately limited by the legal monopoly of violence embodied in the institutions of the bourgeois state, the Workers’ Movement had to confront the capitalist state and build its own organs of political and social power. In this process of constructing alternative hegemonic apparatuses, the proletariat had to engage in an ideological struggle too, fighting against the general form of the representative state, which abstracts the population from its class divisions, and represents individuals as equal citizens.
Thus, in the workers’ movement, we can observe historical attempts to practically explore the relationship between structure and superstructures, or the passage of Communist movement through the entirety of the social formation, from economic base to the sphere of political relations. In this way, the proletariat’s political practice translates the mechanical law expressed at the level of the production process into organically interconnected relations of forces. Marxist scientific practice, in turn, utilizes these concretely evolving contradictions of the capitalist conjuncture to construct different theoretical tools. The following two extracts from Mao Zedong’s essay “On Practice” succinctly articulate the primacy of practice that I have explained above:
If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the structure and properties of the atom, you must make physical and chemical experiments to change the state of the atom. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.
The vertical relation between scientific practice and political practice implies the existence of a certain torsion in the structure of the Communist Party. Since political interventions in social relations are the source of scientific knowledge, the latter will invariably come after the occurrence of the former. This means that for proletarian politics to be guided by Marxist truths, a specific part of political practice has to act as a theoretically unpolished exploration of the capitalist reality. This component of Communist political practice has the sole function of generating new social relations and bringing them to the attention of the Communist Party’s scientific apparatus, which can then scrutinize it more thoroughly. To take an example, Communist militants can’t understand the political utility of parliamentary institutions unless they are willing to participate in them. The experience of the Indian Left can help clarify the matter. In 1957, the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) won the State Assembly election in Kerala, but was only able to govern the state for 28 months. The Communist government’s attempt to conduct land reforms and regulate the private education sector was contested by the dominant social classes and religious institutions. In 1959, the central government acted on behalf of Kerala’s vested interests and dismissed the Communist government. This entire event helped the Indian Left assess the tactical status of parliamentary institutions. In 1964, the CPI split into the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and CPI. In its 1964 programme, the CPI(M), with the 1959 Kerala experience behind it, declared that the use of democratic institutions is not a sufficient precondition for the building of socialism. It should “give a great fillip to the revolutionary movement of the working people and thus help the process of building the democratic front,” that is, a combination of forces that would attack the bourgeois-landlord system. The government, therefore, was considered an “instrument of struggle,” and the purpose of electoral power was to “govern and mobilize” – to implement welfare schemes, deploy all constitutional measures to improve the administration and use extra-parliamentary means to build power among the working people. What this example from Kerala demonstrates is the presence of a specific kind of Communist political practice that gathers concrete information for intellectual analysis by Marxist scientific practice.
In other words, this portion of Communist political practice allows the emergence of new relations of forces. “Capitalist relations are always articulated with other production relations,” notes Bob Jessop, “and are, at most, relatively dominant; moreover, their operation is always vulnerable to disruption through internal contradictions, the intrusion of relations anchored in other institutional orders and the lifeworld (civil society), and resistance rooted in conflicting interests, competing identities, and rival modes of calculation.” Thus, the political practice that operates in theoretically unknown terrains facilitates the movement of the heterogeneous concrete contradictions that are inter-imbricated with the economic relations of capitalism. In short, while scientific practice is needed to know the transformations of social relations, political practice is needed to produce new social relations.
Thus, Marxist scientific practice presupposes as its preceding moment and source of raw information the existence of pre-scientific Communist political practice, which is spontaneously driven by the ethico-political interests of the subalterns. Consequently, errors will inevitably accompany the proletariat’s struggle for hegemony. This reality is why Vladimir Lenin said: “only he who never does anything never makes mistakes.” From the perspective of the revolution, the negative experiences, the mistakes, the defeats of the working class become a part of the process of the dialectical unfolding of contradictory social relations. They become moments of the process of the proletariat’s historical recognition of the capitalist society as a concrete totality i.e. a social totality whose knowledge can only be gained in and through the manifold mediations of its partial, constituent totalities. Therefore, particular political practices – one-sided in nature – invariably mediate universal scientific knowledge. In the words of Alan Shandro, “only individual, sporadic, untimely and therefore unsuccessful actions will enable the masses to ready themselves, gain political experience and size up ‘their real leaders, the socialist proletarians.’” As is evident, there is an asynchronous temporal relation between scientific practice and political practice, which gives rise to pre-scientific political practice. Althusser recognized this when he said that we have to think “about what is specific in the contradiction and in the dialectic, about the specific difference of the contradiction which quite simply allows us, not to demonstrate or explain the ‘inevitable’ revolutions post festum, but to ‘make’ them in our unique present, or, as Marx profoundly formulated it, to make the dialectic into a revolutionary method, rather than the theory of the fait accompli. [emphasis mine].” Here, he is talking about how scientific practice needs to stop producing knowledge after the occurrence of pre-scientific political practice and instead, help the latter gain an element of scientificity. Insofar that pre-scientific political practice will cease to function as a mere source of raw material for scientific practice – a source bereft of revolutionary theory – the Communist Party will make fewer mistakes.
But how exactly can we reconfigure the relation between scientific practice and political practice so that the need for pre-scientific political practice is eliminated? It is at this strategic interstice that the need for Marxist philosophy arises. Marxist philosophy is defined as the theory of the laws of scientific practice, dealing not with the speculative thoughts of individuals, but the thought that conforms to dialectical logic, to thought that adequately reflects its object i.e. scientific practice. Scientific practice, as we know, is not considered “an autonomous substance alienated (reified) in nature and society, but as the subjectivisation of objective laws of development.” It is a materialist “reflection of the external world’s objective regularities uncovered through its practical transformation into expressions of human consciousness and will.” That is why the structure of scientific practice is composed of the unity of rational-cognitive theoretical practice and pre-scientific (ideological) political practice. Consequently, philosophy directed by Marxist principles becomes “neither a dialectics of being (ontology) nor of thought (epistemology) but the dialectics of the concrete content… – the universal laws of objective development – of thought [scientific practice].” As such, philosophical categories are both objective (expressing the real regularities revealed by scientific practice) and subjective (expressing how scientific practice is based on political interventions in reality). “Therefore, the world does not appear before philosophical consciousness only as that which exists objectively, but the possible world, the world that must be, perceived and expressed through the necessities and desires of the subject of social [political] practice.”
In short, Marxist philosophy viewed as the theoretical appropriation of scientific practice concerns itself with Marxist theoretical practice that reflects the structuring principles and internal characteristics of pre-scientific political practice. Thus, the forms of thought that philosophy studies are the appropriation, through pre-scientific political practice and scientific practice, of the objective regularities that exist in reality. By systematically analyzing the logical forms that characterize Marxist scientific practice’s utilization of pre-scientific political practice, Marxist philosophy produces methodological tools that are epistemological-cognitive and evaluative-normative in nature. These dual qualities enable Marxist philosophical categories to form a link between scientific practice and pre-scientific political practice, to act as a logical-methodological sublimation of the rational knowledge that will best suit the ethico-political interests of the subalterns. This is why Marxist philosophical categories can be used as dialectical weapons by the practitioners of pre-scientific political practice to confront reality. In this way, the pre-scientific character of a certain section of working class political practice will erode as all the militants of the Communist Party will come to possess a general orientation regarding the objective laws of reality. Their encounter with the wealth of empirical data that comprises the social totality will get refracted through the methodological framework provided by the grasp of Marxist philosophy, which sees the world in terms of a complex pattern of intersecting processes, where others see it only as disconnected and static facts.
It is important to note that philosophy’s development of a world outlook does not mean that it possesses an ahistorical constancy and stands above the concrete dynamics of changing conjunctures. On the contrary, philosophical practice, like scientific practice, is deeply burdened with the impurity of the conjuncture, and can’t serve the programmatic objectives of Communism unless it learns to adapt to the shifting coordinates of class struggle. “In philosophy,” writes Althusser, “every space is always already occupied. Within it, we can only hold a position against the adversary who already holds that position.” This kind of materialist perspective – cognizant of the extreme heteronomy of philosophical practice – emphasizes the transformative and measurable effects of Marxist philosophy, modifying the content and contours of philosophical theses to weaken the hold of dominant philosophies and create space for new theoretical developments. The practitioners of Marxist philosophy strengthen the material effects of their philosophical categories by participating in conjunctural struggles that are forced upon them by the dynamic of the class struggle.
The concreteness of Marxist philosophical practice, its conscious recognition of its own historical determination by other practices, and its direct relevance for Communist political practice, allows the militants of the Communist Party to formulate provisional maps of the given world. In the proletariat, these provisional maps are more than pre-scientific political practice but less than scientific practice; they are stages in the dialectical progress toward the objectively correct knowledge of reality. The operational arena of these stages, or provisional maps, is the moment – a category which is closely linked to the philosophical practice of Marxism, namely dialectical materialism. According to George Lukacs, a moment is a “situation whose duration may be longer or shorter, but which is distinguished from the process that leads up to it in that it forces together the essential tendencies of that process, and demands that a decision be taken over the future direction of the process. That is to say the tendencies reach a sort of zenith, and depending on how the situation concerned is handled, the process takes on a different direction after the ‘moment’.” The fact that the moment “demands that a decision be taken and the day after tomorrow might be too late to make that decision,” does not mean that it is purely subjective, unmoored from the process. Rather, the subjective intervention in the objective process “is an actual, operative moment of the process itself, and not only something imagined.” Such a subjective intervention/moment “does not only form an unavoidable link between any two objective moments, a link that might be, however, disregarded in an ‘objective’ consideration of things, since it is not important for ‘objective’ analysis. It also shows that people actually – and not only in their imagination –make their own history.” In other words, the subjective moment is called forth by the crisis-prone tendencies of capitalism, its unending instabilities, which open up certain ruptures in the operational processes of the bourgeois state. It is the presence of these ruptures that creates a space for a proletarian response, a subjective decision whose correctness with regard to the objective assessment of the balance of forces can provide a revolutionary direction to the entire process.
Thus, the subjective moment is a result of the objective process itself, one that will reappear in the future as an objective determinant of our action after the subjective decision has been taken. That is why Lukacs insists that the “subject does not face the object inflexibly and unconnectedly. The dialectical method does not intend either an undifferentiated unity or a definite separation of moments. On the contrary rather: it invokes an uninterrupted process of moments becoming independent and the uninterrupted abolition of this independence…this (dialectical and therefore dialectically overcome) independence of the subjective moment in the contemporary stage of the historical process, in the period of proletarian revolution, is a decisive characteristic of the general situation.” The correctness or incorrectness of the subjective decisions made by the Workers’ Movement mold the subsequent objective realities within which the proletariat later finds itself, which means that subjective decisions congeal into objective causes, indicating how the class consciousness of the proletariat is of utmost importance in the making of the Communist revolution. The dialectical interweaving of subjective and objective factors means that moments that involve conscious agency and purely subjective qualities are themselves dependent on previous interventions in subjective moments. So, if the Communist Party has been making correct interventions in subjective moments, it would be able to concentrate and advance the proletariat’s subjective agency to such an extent that – at the insurrectionary moment – it would provide hegemonic leadership for a socialist revolution.
Marxist philosophy’s provisional maps play an important role in the subjective moment because they weaken the ideologically corroded spontaneity of the working class and equip them with the methodological worldview of dialectical materialism. The philosophy of dialectical materialism advances two formulations. First, the point of departure for Communist militants should be the existing social relations, the actual life-process of historically discrete humans. By beginning from the material-productive intercourse in which concrete subjects are engaged, we come to understand the real constraints and contexts of our actions. This is the materialist approach. Second, we need to understand that reality is not just an inorganic totality; it is a contradictory whole unified in all its diverse manifestations, an organic system of mutually conditioning phenomena. This whole develops through its internal law of development, through the systematic unfolding of the immanent life of the subject-matter. Variations keep taking place through the movement of contradictions. This is the dialectical approach. When unified in a coherent manner, dialectics and materialism displace the extremist and reformist deviations that characterize pre-scientific political practice and instead install the hegemony of a political practice that is sensitive to the cadence of the conjuncture. “Dialectics alerts us to the need for change, materialism to the importance of bringing this change into line with the objective circumstances which actually prevail.” Once the Communist Party has made the subjective decision regarding the influenceability of the capitalist process, that decision becomes manifest as the translation of the will of its militants into an objective factor of social development.
A great example of this entire politico-philosophical dynamic is supplied by the 2020-21 Indian farmers’ protests, which shook the country’s neoliberal and neo-fascist ruling dispensation. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government exploited the chaos to introduce three agricultural bills in parliament in June 2020, which were passed by September 2020 without any discussion in the parliament. These three laws aimed at opening up the agricultural sector to the entry of large agribusinesses. While the government said that these laws would allow farmers to access the optimal price-setting mechanisms of the market, the actual result would have pitted farmers against agribusinesses, whose economic dominance would have enabled them to monopolize the agricultural market. At this moment, the objective process of capitalism entailed a subjective response from the popular classes. The Left organizations of India – which played a significant part in decision-making at the level of leadership of the resistance – responded to this crisis by supporting the popular slogan put forward by the farmers: “No Farmers No Food.” This slogan posited the existence of an abstract figure of farmer, despite the fact that the Indian peasantry is deeply fractured along class and caste lines. “Apart from the contradictions that separate the marginal and small farmers from the middle and large farmers,” writes Aditya Bahl, “there also exists a more powerful political antagonism between the farmers and the agrarian workers. Given that 56 percent of India’s rural population is landless, it is surprising how popular slogans such as ‘No Farmers No Food’ conveniently ignore the vast proletarian majority of the country. Moreover, the landless, too, occupy a variety of political-economic subject positions, thus resulting in a labyrinthine of class-based social relations”. Given these facts, why did the Left support the slogan? It did so because of the threat posed by large agribusiness corporations to the wellbeing of both farmers and workers. If the corporatization of agriculture would result in the legalized theft of the landholdings of farmers by agribusinesses and the subjection of the former to market laws, then the situation of agricultural workers would deteriorate in the following way: 1) the policies of export-oriented agro-industrialization would result in the mechanization of crop production and hence reduce the demand for labor; 2) the policies of market deregulation would remove the government guarantee of a Minimum Support Price for certain major crops grown by farmers, forcing them to operate according to the cost-saving constraints of the market, and thus, reducing the wages they can pay to agricultural workers; and 3) the entry of agribusiness would result in a shift from food grains to cash crops because the latter can earn greater profits on the world market; this would compromise the food security of India – impacting the poorest sections most negatively – and make it beholden to imperialist interests for the import of food grains.
Equipped with the philosophical tools of dialectical materialism, the Indian Left was quick to recognize these future effects of the three agricultural bills and thus upheld Kisan Mazdoor Ekta – unity between farmers and workers. Here, it was this very notion of unity that functioned as a provisional map for the Indian Left. The production of this provisional map, in turn, was made possible by the philosophical tools offered by dialectical materialism, which aid the recognition of the relevant historical contradictions and point out the conjunctural limitations within which those contradictions have to be resolved. If there had been no philosophical framework, then the only guide to action available to the Indian Left would have been the class instincts that form the core component of pre-scientific political practice. This is so because the subjective moment is characterized by the emergence of a novelty, a conjunctural crisis, one that can only be approximated but never fully theorized by existing scientific practices. The remainder of the conjuncture, the part that is left out by the analytical lens of scientific theory, is covered by the provisional maps created by Marxist philosophical practice. That is why dialectical materialism is necessary for the scientific development of Communist political practice.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
This article was republished from Cosmonaut Magazine.