Do Marxists Need “Professional Revolutionaries”?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formulated dialectic materialism as a law which claims to provide the correct analysis of societal evolution and historical progress. Materialism holds that matter forms consciousness; thus, it has profound theoretical implications for the nature and causes of revolutions specifically and social changes generally. Marxist economics is deterministic because of its preconception that capitalism will be suceeded by a communist revolution, which is an empirical claim on the nature of production. As this essay argues, the materialist premise[1] that the capital class invariably will be disclosed by workers as inept commanders of the means of production is hardly an adequate theory on the inevitably overthrow of capitalism. If so, then, do communist leaders depend on deliberate agitation and methodical political measures that actively propagates Marxist doctrine to seize control of the state apparatus?

Marx did not explicitly oppose the latter strategy. Yet, according to his materialist position class-consciousness and thereby class revolution would ensue from changes in the means of production and not from intellectual activism. Vladimir Lenin, on the contrary, firmly believed that the masses must be actively directed, through “professional revolutionaries”, in order for a communist revolution to succeed.[2] Correspondingly, he deems spontaneous revolts to be futile; hence, his emphasis on the spread of ideas is more aligned with philosophical idealism. This paper looks at materialism and idealism’s implications for Marxist theory, in conjunction with the great Marxist enigma on why socialist revolution in industrialized countries failed to materialize.

Marx and Lenin believed that historical materialism unveils society’s underlying structures. I will therefore compare their distinctive theories on political change, and subsequently compare them with working-class historian E.P. Thompson’s study on the formation of class-consciousness in the eighteenth century Georgian England. In his classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson depicts the nascent English working class’ complex economic and political struggle, which shares very few of Marx or Lenin’s theoretical presumptions of the proletariat’s development. However, Thompson’s emphasis on workers’ fluctuating ideological preferences and external influences in the formation of class-consciousness corresponds more with Lenin’s inclination towards idealism than with Marx’s class essentialism.

Mind and Matter
Before humans can function as civilized thinking beings, according to Marx and Engels, they must take care of their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and so on:

“The first premise of all human existence, and, therefore, of all history, the premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’.”[3]

Economic production arises as an intuitive response to the fact that people must produce to be able to live, which serves as a basis preceding “everything else.”[4] Marxism regards this preposition – the Materialist Concept of History – as universal for all humans across time and place, and as the driving force of history. Society’s “superstructure” – including cultural aspects such as law, religion, politics, greed, and dominion – first emerge after basic needs are fulfilled. These existing, and shifting, superstructures reflect enduring economic clashes that permeate the production process. In other words, the way a society organizes its production is what determines the culture and even the people’s thinking; as Marx put it, “it is not consciousness that determines being, but social being that determines consciousness.”[5]

Production precedes ideas for the same reason that the mind itself ascends from matter;[6] indeed, materialism holds that everything in the universe consists solely of matter, including human consciousness. Marxism stresses that materialism, from which historical determinism derives, cannot be neglected if one is to properly analyse society’s ills and tensions, because the production and distribution of matter is the source of human conflicts. As these conflicts intensifies, revolution will erupt.

The philosophical contrast between materialism and its counterpart idealism, which designate the influence of the conscious mind over matter, has profound implications for discussions over economic, social and political changes. The materialism of Marx claims that people’s intuitive inventiveness causes a persistent process of construction. Continual productive advancements are essentially an extension of the fact that human survival has always depended upon our productive powers, such as mixing our labour with tools and extracting raw materials. Satisfying certain needs, according to Marx, only leads to another need and so on.[7] Philosophical idealism conversely holds that thoughts and concepts in the human mind are a prerequisite to satisfy any need at all. The complexity of an innovation, consequently, depends primarily on thought processes not the labouring act in itself. Idealism applies similar reasoning to explain social changes, which can be summed up with the cliché: ideas shape society.

Common misunderstandings about idealism and materialism can make the respective philosophies seem utterly disconnected from real life. It is obviously impossible, one might say, to separate ideas and matter; production depends on both thinking and doing, and, similarly, ideas can change society while simultaneously reflect its social structures. Assuredly, Marx did not regard humans as labouring zombies in an arbitrary production process, just as no serious idealist believes that the human mind and its creations work inextricable from material influences.

The contrast depends entirely on the primary and secondary emphasis on mind or matter. Idealists hold that purposeful actions require preliminary ideas, whereas materialists accentuate that interaction with matter instigates thought processes. Correspondingly, Marxism sees philosophical ideas merely as reflections of social conditions. This is the basis for its historical determinism; socialism will occur as a consequence of increasing polarization inherent in capitalism.[8] Class conflict between wage labouring proletarians and capital owning bourgeoisie is a dichotomy that has manifested itself throughout modern history and led to overthrow of governments, most prominently, in the Russian October revolution of 1917.

In Marxist theory, historical progress follows dialectical revolutions. Revolutions are triggered by productive developments, which alter the social position among members of society. Such technological and industrial developments essentially occur irrespective of how production in a given society is organized, precisely because industrious activity always has been fundamental to human existence. Significantly, however, this does not mean that Marxism considers all method of organizing production to be equally effective. Among their five identified stages of development, Marx and Engels’ considered capitalism to be the second most effective system in channelling human inventiveness into tangible material development, particularly compared to the likes of slavery and feudalism.[9]

Historical determinism, notably, is not to be mistaken for scientific determinism that entirely rejects free will; although Marx stressed how matter and production influence ideas, and determine society’s superstructure, he did not regard humans as mere passive pawns in a preconceived historical process. Marx was aware of the contradiction between scientific laws that governs history and recounting active participants.[10] He counters this by upholding that people indeed are the makers of history, but the conditions in which they do so is inevitably predetermined.[11] In that matter, Marx can be considered a weak determinist.

Although Marx regarded the power of ideas as influential, though subordinate, in dialectic historical changes, his materialist philosophy is ultimately anti-elitist in that revolutions must come from the proletarians themselves. Paradoxically, Vladimir Lenin, the fist person to head a self-proclaimed Marxist government after the October Revolution, swore that centralized and hierarchal measures to agitate class-consciousness were indispensable to establish socialism.

Distinctions between Marx and Lenin on the Revolutionary Road
While Marx and Engels’ activism primarily were intellectual, Lenin was set on transforming theoretical Marxism into a full-blown communist revolution. His political pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (WITBD)[12], is arguably Lenin most prominent contribution to the communist tradition because of his strategic idea that proletariat revolution must be achieved through professionally organized revolutionaries. WITBD was also a central reason for the split between the Lenin-lead Bolsheviks and the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDP) at the Second Congress in 1903, primarily because he rejected political gradualism in all fractions of the Russian working class movement.

Moreover, Lenin asserted that the fellow socialists which downplayed the importance of revolutionary battle and merely focused on “economic struggles” were ultimately enemies of the socialist movement.[13] Paradoxically, Lenin did not hold the working class itself in the highest regard. In WITBD, Lenin maintained that trade union antagonism and strikes were merely displaying class struggle in ”embryo”, meaning in an insulated and juvenile form.[14] In fact, he considered the workers inept to independently comprehend the profound socialist struggle because they lacked “Social-Democratic consciousness:”[15]

“This [Social-Democratic] consciousness could only be brought to them from without. History of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.”[16]

In his endevour to realize communist utopia, Lenin basically scorned essentials Marxist doctrines, primarily the determinist materialization of class struggle. According to Lenin, the working class was, under correct guidance, capable of collectively organizing themselves in unions, arrange strikes, demand pay raise and so on. Yet he rejected that socialism developed spontaneously from workers and trade unions – neither as a general doctrine nor in his own Russia – but rather from an intellectual movement led by “educated representatives.”[17] Lenin even asserted that the social status of Marx and Engels denotes that they, too, belonged to the “bourgeois intelligentsia.”[18] When Russian workers did awake to class struggles in the labour revolts and democratic reform of the 1890s, Lenin claimed, it came as a result of deliberate agitation by socialist intellectuals.[19] 

Thus, Lenin embraced an elitism and intellectualism that Marx and Engels explicitly opposed. During the establishment of the First International in 1864, Marx proclaimed that the proletariat should not place itself under the “educated an propertied bourgeois” who consider them to be “too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above”.[20] Being part of the proletariat is not a subjective experience, according to Marx and Engels. Rather, classes are objective positions defining labour relations, which will deepen when rampant failures of the wage system become apparent, through growing inequalities and alienation, economic crises, mass unemployment, poverty, and the eventual evaporation of the middle class.[21]

Lenin, on the other hand, seems to dispute the premise that class-consciousness is a materialistic derivative, or, at the least, distrust it as the causal element of a socialist revolution. Hence, the need for “professional revolutionaries” and “professional agitators.” These professional socialists were part of the centralized secrecy of the revolution, and Lenin affirms: “it takes years to train” them.[22] The functions of these professionals were organizational work to weaken the authorities, yet it was equally important that they were well reversed in agitation and propagandist measures to persuade the proletarians.[23]

Drawing from the October Revolution’s successful overthrow of the Tsarist Empire in 1917, it would appear that Marx is wrong, and that the masses in fact are unable to develop class-consciousness as a pure reaction to capital and labour relations. Perhaps class-consciousness does not “inevitably” develop, but forms from intellectual guidance, as Lenin assumed. Conceivably, then, it would not suddenly become “evident” that the bourgeoisie is “unfit to rule,”[24] but that this awareness must be learned. Correspondingly, a pressing Marxist question, based on its theory on economic determinism, is why communist revolutions failed to materialize in most industrialized nations, despite profound inequalities and tensions between workers and capitalists, if Marx and Engels were correct.

Lenin’s revolutionary belief in the necessity to “awaken” the proletariat can, at least, explain this revolutionary absence with, say, a shortage of educated agitators, weak organizational strength, and flimsy mass mobilization. Marxism, though, has a great philosophical challenge if such explanations accurately explain why revolutions occur in some nations and not others. That is, if the materialist view that economic conditions determine ideas is true, which according to Marx is the premise of the Marxist historical analysis, then the masses themselves should realize their oppressive situation based on their economic state. If the proletariat themselves fail to comprehend their “oppression” then either materialism or the Marxist economic assessment of capitalism is mistaken.[25]

In order to not distort Marx’s positions, it must be said that Marx did not regard class-consciousness as something that mechanically appeared in workers. The capitalist economy’s superstructures – conceptions, institutions, law, culture, etc. – produce “bourgeois ideology” in order to reproduce the “class rule.”[26] It is the Marxist condemnation of ideology that has given rise to the Neo- (or cultural) Marxist concept of “false consciousness” because, as Marx maintained, the ruling ideas in a society are merely reflections of the material relationships, which will seek to legitimize self-interested power structures.[27] Marx, nonetheless, alleged that he disclosed material conditions by empirically analysing productive forces, which would reveal themselves irrespective of ideologues. The nature of economic determinism is precisely the theory that capitalist production is based on real conflicts, and that the proletarians would forcefully react when these conflicts necessarily worsens. Lenin’s lack of faith in the ability of the proletarians to develop this conscious reaction to their material conditions are therefore starkly opposed this position.

The Making of Class Consciousness
In The Making of the English Working Class[28], E.P. Thompson, writing from a new left historical perspective, arguably reinforces Lenin’s view that class-consciousness among the masses depend on intellectual influence, instead of occurring as a response to their material conditions. This is certainly not a given conclusion, as Thompson and Lenin’s angles are dissimilar. Both Thompson and Lenin conceivably embrace an idealist framework in their emphasis on the intellectuals’ leading role in guiding the masses. However, their outlook on the aspirations of the masses, respectively, on the established Russian working class, and on the emerging English working class, fundamentally differs.

Lenin applied a top-down assessment of the Russian proletariat, whom he considered merely preoccupied with their own material status, compared to Thompson’s history from below that depicts the nascent English working class movement’s battle for political rights. The conditional factors between the established working class in Russia, after its 1890s industrialization, and the English emerging working class in the 1820s is of course profoundly problematic to compare. However, comparing Thompson and Lenin’s depiction on the masses is nonetheless fruitful because they are preoccupied with similar questions from distinctive positions.

As we have seen, Lenin faulted workers for their excessive focus on their compromising and economic self-interest, instead of extensively impact the political system. Thompson, on the other hand, highlights the immense and impressive determination of the British working class to educate themselves amidst hard labor and long working hours. Thompson portrays the emergence of an ambitious and self-driven intellectual culture, where even the illiterates devotedly partook in aloud reading groups, which filled up the coffee houses throughout the country with lively discussions. Lenin, on the other hand, saw the need to methodically direct the masses’ awareness – otherwise they would merely focus on their own petty material existence. In spite of their general correspondences, Thompson’s idealism is more profound in that he portrays the English working class as largely being preoccupied with moral questions rather than material progress.

Thompson denotes that English worker’s placed higher prominence on political freedoms than economic struggles, and regarded this as more important than overthrowing the capitalist class.[29] Thompson’s shows how English radicalism was related to the historical concept of ’Free-Born Englishmen’ and their strong regard for personal liberty. The heightened emphasis on freedoms was the direct result of the British government turning more authoritarian with the implementations of the censoring Six Acts in 1819, and as a respond to increasing poplar demands for parliamentary reform. These six acts principally limited free speech through sedition and blasphemous libel legislation, and newspaper duties, and, also, free assemblies by requiring official permission for public meetings regarding church or state matters.

English working-class emphasis on personal freedoms over collective economic matters not only differs from Lenin’s views on Russian labourers; it also relates to the initial discussion on the Marxist materialist doctrine, which holds that necessities prevail over abstract ideological concepts. Nonetheless, Thompson’s accounts of the radical emphasis on individual-oriented natural rights, exemplified with the notorious courtly battles of Richard Carlile and William Cobbett, in forming class-consciousness does not (as far as I can see) categorically refute the Marxist theory of needs. It may be argued that freedom from autocratic rulers is a necessary perquisite for the proletarian revolution. The Marxist theory of needs can thus hypothetically be inverted by arguing that political “needs” such as free speech and the right to assembly is a crucial preliminary step for collective class demands. That is, of course, after a person has satisfied his essential material needs. After all, how can people strike or instigate the seeds of socialist rebellion without basic – tangible – freedoms?

Significantly, Thompson asserts that there was hardly any class-consciousness until the 1830s, while the more pure socialist ideals came years later. There were, however, plenty of nascent examples of a collective consciousness, such as proclamations Universal Suffrage by working men.[30] Moreover, one may argue that, to Thompson, the dominant sentiments in the early radical movements primarily was battles for freedoms, which is closely attached to libertarian concepts of right in relation to government. Yet, Thompson depicts varied movements, ranging from Unitarians, “free-thinking Christians”, and Republicans, to labour organizations, whose groups and people obviously had diverse philosophies.

Although a common denominator of these radical movements primarily were a preoccupation with so-called Enlightenment ideas of reason and freedom, Thompson does not neglect various material struggles, including trade unionism, cooperative and anti-capitalist social experiments. However, these movements were precisely characterized by their diverse nature with overlapping and shifting interests, not the core class-consciousness of Marx. Of course, Thompson’s reference point on the formation of the English working class was around two decades before Marx developed his communist doctrine. However, according to Marx’s materialist basis, this is itself inessential because class-consciousness transcends intellectual hegemonies. A Marxist defence, based on his theory of the increasing polarization of the classes, is thus that the 1820s’ nascent formation of class-consciousness feasible was at a historical stage preceding the mechanist takeover of production, which only subsequently would result in the evaporation of the middle class. There exist fewer contemporary defences for why this, alongside communist revolutions, subsequently has failed to materialize.

Political mass organising in the 1820s England were successful in creating pressure on the governments and instigating parliamentary and democratic reforms, such as curbing the government limits on free speech, even without “class consciousness”. This correspondingly occurred throughout Europe, during the so-called “Age of Revolutions,” where mass mobilizations altered the government structures in Europe. Marx, however, regarded these social upbringings as bourgeois revolutions, although he welcomed democratic uprising from feudal structures.[31] He held that socialist revolutions would arise in the later stages of capitalism. Thus he ridiculed those who believed that capitalism were the end of history, on the basis of his class essentialism.

Thompson, however, portrays a vastly different account of the diverse and susceptible nature of the emerging working class, where intellectual inspirations prompted fluctuating ideological beliefs, and not changes in economic structures.[32] According to Thompson, it was thoroughly difficult to establish any sound political movement because charismatic leaders easily influenced workers, whom consequently swiftly changed ideologies. In addition, in spite of economic hardships, many labourers in fact valued “bourgeois ideology” such as the classical liberalism of Tomas Paine.[33] Even if we accept that that the 1820s is inapt to explain Marxist class theory because it came prior to a shattering effect of capitalism, the materialist analysis is hardly sufficient to explain why England, the epicentre of industrialization, never saw a full blown successful socialist labour movement amid its lingering development from industrialism to post industrialism. Thompson’s historical insight is the rejection of working class “generalizations,”[34] which, alongside, Lenin’s autocratic revolutionary approach, illuminate this great Marxist riddle.

Conclusive Thoughts
The debate over materialism and idealism in Marxist philosophy has profound effects on the theories of political change and revolutionary upbringings in general. As seen, Marxist theory suffers in the meeting with reality, which might explain its historical failure. Its failures are not on intellectually influence revolutions, but its economic assumption, which derives from its didactic materialism. Hence, its materialist question is relevant for the neo-Marxist development of Marx’s ideas. Indeed, many have come to reject Marx’s historical determinism. Curiously, divergence between Marx and Lenin is relatable to the current state of Marxism, where only a minute minority of Western working people considers themselves to be communists. Marxism has arguably become, or has always been, as Lenin would say, elitist in pursuit of egalitarianism. This is particularly true after Marxism became institutionalized in Western academia in the 1960s. There are conceivably more Marxist professors, “bourgeoisie intelligentsia” as Marx himself, than manual labourers. This supports Lenin’s views on the idealist and intellectualist imperative of communist doctrines, especially in order for them to influence political system.

[1] Marx, Karl and Friedrich, Engels. The Communist Manifesto, page 47. London: Arcturus Publihsing, 2010

They write, “Its [the bourgeoisie] fall and the victory of the proletarian are equally inevitable”.

[2] Lenin, Vladimir. Essential Works of Lenin: “What Is to Be Done?” and Other Writings, page 148. New York: Dover Publications, 1987

[3] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. A cirtique of the Gemran ideology, page 12. Progress Publishers, 1968

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy page 11. Chicago: The Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company

[6] Seely, S. Charles. Modern Materialism: A Philosophy of Action Reference, page 41. New York: Philosophical Library, 1960

[7] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. A cirtique of the Gemran ideology, page 13. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968

[8] Marx, Karl and Friedrich, Engels. The Communist Manifesto, page 47. London: Arcturus Publihsing, 2010
[9] Marx, Karl and Friedrich, Engels. The Communist Manifesto, page 27. London: Arcturus Publihsing, 2010

[10] Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol 1, page 103. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1976
Here, Marx states his purpose for writing capital was to identify the laws that regulates the social order and to replace it with another with a superior law.

[11] Marx, Karl: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. First Published 1852, Alex Blain (Ed.) Marx/Engels Internet Archive, Marxism.org, 2006 (Accessed 22/11/2015) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/
This is the contextual meaning of the renowned quote, “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

[12] Lenin, Vladimir. Essential Works of Lenin: “What Is to Be Done?” and Other Writings. New York: Dover Publications, 1987

[13] Ibid., page 73

[14] Ibid., page 74

[15] Ibid., page 74

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., page 75

[18] Ibid.
In the following chapter, “Trade Union Politics and Social-Democratic Politics,” Lenin further highlights the difference between trade unionism and Social-Democratic politics drawing on many of the same points as discussed here. The competitive nature of political parties and trade unions becomes obvious. This is probably an indispensible outcome of the relative novelty of socialist political parties compared to trade unions, which also was the case in England (and throughout Europe and beyond).

[19] Ibid., page 75

[20] Evans, Micheael. Karl Marx: Political Thinkers Vol. 3, page 134. New York: Routledge, 2004

Importantly: I am not claiming that Lenin and Marx, in spite of the outlined differences, somehow were ideological antagonists. Marx’s huge inluence on the First International Congress in 1866 where detested by many left-wingers, primarily the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, due to what they regarded as a primary focus on parlamentary and political matters instead of economic improvement. Lenin criticized his fellow socialists on the same grounds in WITBD, which Lenin did in the context of the ongoing socialist battle between a primary economic or political objective that caused tension in the revolutionary movement. (Karl Marx, 136-144)

[21] Marx, Karl and Friedrich, Engels. The Communist Manifesto, page 45-47. London: Arcturus Publihsing, 2010

[22] Lenin, Vladimir. Essential Works of Lenin: “What Is to Be Done?” and Other Writings, page 148. New York: Dover Publications, 1987

[23] Ibid., page 155.

Hal Draper, strongly rejects the idea that Lenin’s WITBD is a blueprint for a single centralized and hierarchal party that controls the communist project. Draper’s doctrinaire efforts to whitewash Lenin from essentially all his statements by putting them into a broader contexts largely falls short, particularly considering that the Communist Party (RSDP changed their name in 1918) following the revolution rapidly turned extremely secretive, centralized and hierarchal, and was deemed the only legal party in 1920 amidst the brutal Russian Civil War. (Draper, Hal. The Myth of Lenin’s Concept of The Party. 1990. Marxists.org. Accessed 29/11/2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1990/myth/myth.htm#top

[24] Marx, Karl and Friedrich, Engels. The Communist Manifesto, page 46. London: Arcturus Publihsing, 2010

[25] This is indeed a either-or question: The materialist view that economic conditions affects people’s thinking must be incorrect if the working class largely fails to accept this oppressive nature of their labour relations. However, if the materialist view is correct, the detrimental economic analysis of Marx cannot simultaneously be precise because then people would eventually oppose it anywhere.

[26] Marx, Karl and Friedrich, Engels. The Communist Manifesto, page 42. London: Arcturus Publihsing, 2010

[27] Ibid. 53

[28] Thompson, P. Edward. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Penguin Books, 1991

Due to spacial limitations I only discus Chapter 16: Class Consciousness: The Radical Culture in my discussion

[29] Thompson, P. Edward. The Making of the English Working Class, page 792-795 and 805. New York: Penguin Books, 1991

[30] Thompson, P. Edward. The Making of the English Working Class, page 783. New York: Penguin Books, 1991

[31] Evans, Micheael. Karl Marx: Political Thinkers Vol. 3, page 140. New York: Routledge, 2004

[32] Thompson, P. Edward. The Making of the English Working Class, page 782. New York: Penguin Books, 1991,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Thompson, P. Edward. The Making of the English Working Class, page 782. New York: Penguin Books, 1991

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