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 and social changes. Marxist economics is deterministic because of its preconception that communist revolution will supersede capitalism. This is an empirical claim on the nature of production, as Marx and Engels write, “the bourgeoisie fall and the victory of the proletarian are equally inevitable”. [1] The materialist premise that workers invariably will disclose the capital class as leeching commanders of the means of production, however, is hardly a sound theory on the inevitable overthrow of capitalism. If so, this essay asks, do communist leaders depend on deliberate organization, propaganda and political agitation in order to seize control of the state apparatus? At last, this essay compares Marx and Lenin’s contradictory theories on political change with historian E.P. Thompson’s study on the formation of class-consciousness in late-eighteenth century Georgian England.

Marx did not explicitly oppose deliberate political organization and propagation of communist doctrine. Yet, according to his materialist position, class-consciousness and thereby class revolution will ensue from changes in the means of production and not from intellectual activism. Lenin, on the contrary, firmly believed that the masses must be actively directed, through “professional revolutionaries”, for a communist revolution to succeed.[2] As such, Lenin believed spontaneous revolts to be futile. Marx and Lenin both believed that materialism is at the core of society’s underlying structures. In sharp contrast to Marx, however, Lenin’s emphasis on the power of ideas is more aligned with philosophical idealism. This distinction has a profound implication on the great Marxist enigma about the absence of socialist revolution in industrialized countries.

In his classic study, The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson depicts the complex economic and political struggle of the nascent English working class. Thompson’s historical account shares few of Marx theoretical presumptions on the proletariat’s development. His emphasis on the shifting ideological preferences and external, political 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, in this view, 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 intellectual 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. Indeed, materialism holds that everything in the universe consists solely of matter, including human consciousness. [6] Marxism stresses that materialism, from which historical determinism derives, is crucial to properly analyze 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 idealism, or the influence of the conscious mind over matter, has profound implications for the nature of social and political changes. Materialism holds that people intuitively strive for a persistent process of construction. Continual productive advancement, therefore, is an extension of the fact that human survival depends upon 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 productive innovation, consequently, depends primarily on thought processes and not the laboring act itself. Idealists reason similarly when explaining social changes, often in 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. Marx did not regard humans as laboring zombies in an arbitrary production process, just as no serious idealist believes that the human mind and its creations work independent from material influences.

The contrast depends entirely on the primary and secondary emphasis on mind or matter. Idealism holds that thinking  causes purposeful action, whereas materialism holds that thought processes is caused by interacting with matter. 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 the polarization inherent in capitalism.[8] Class conflict between wage-laborers and capital-owners is a dichotomy that has manifested itself throughout modern history and led to overthrow of governments, most forcefully, in the Russian October revolution of 1917.

In Marxist theory, historical progress follows dialectical revolutions. Revolutions are triggered by productive developments, which fundamentally 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. This does not mean that Marxist theorists consider 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, especially compared to the likes of slavery and feudalism.[9]

Historical determinism, notably, must not be mistaken for the scientific determinism that entirely rejects free will; although Marx emphasized how matter and production influence ideas and determine society’s superstructure, he did not regard humans as passive pawns in a preconceived historical process. Marx was aware of the contradiction between having active participants and scientific laws that governs the direction of history.[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 this regard, 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, Lenin, the fist person to lead a self-proclaimed Marxist government after the 1917 October Revolution, swore that centralized and hierarchal measures to agitate class-consciousness were indispensable in establishing a socialist society.

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 his most prominent contribution to the communist literary tradition. Its central thesis is that proletariat revolution must be achieved through professionally organized revolutionaries. WITBD was also an important cause 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 Lenin 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 endeavor to realize communist utopia, Lenin scorned Marx’s economic determinism of class struggle. According to Lenin, the working class was, under correct guidance, capable of collectively organizing themselves into 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] Lenin further asserted that the Russian labor revolts and democratic reforms in 1890s came as a result of deliberate agitation by socialist intellectuals.[19] 

As such, 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 essential positions that defines labor relations; eventually the failures of the wage system will become apparent, through growing inequalities and alienation, economic crises, unemployment, and the gradual evaporation of the middle class.[21]

Lenin, on the other hand, seems to dispute the premise that class-consciousness is a materialistic derivation, or, at the least, he distrust it as the causal element of socialist revolution. Hence, he felt the need for “professional revolutionaries” and “professional agitators.” These professional socialists were to be part of the centralized secrecy of the revolution, and Lenin affirmed, “it takes years to train” them.[22] The functions of these professionals were 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. It seems that class-consciousness did not develop spontaneously, as Lenin assumed, but from intellectual guidance. Conceivably, then, it does not suddenly become “evident” that the bourgeoisie is “unfit to rule,” but that this “awareness” is learned. [24] Correspondingly, a pressing Marxist question is why communist revolutions failed to materialize in industrialized nations, despite profound inequalities and tensions between workers and capitalists, if Marx’s economic determinism is correct. 

Lenin’s revolutionary belief in the necessity to “awaken” the proletariat can, at least, explain the absence of revolution with, say, a shortage of educated agitators and mass mobilization or weak organizational strength. However, if the materialist premise that material conditions determine ideas is true, then the masses themselves should realize their oppressive situation based on their economic state. This has led to a great challenge among Marxist theorists and advocates: if materialism accurately explain the nature of social change, then why has revolution in industrialized countries failed to materialize, and why  do revolutions occur in certain nations and not in others? If the proletariat themselves fail to comprehend their “oppression” then, we can conclude, either materialism or Marx’s analysis of capitalism are 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 – institutions, law, culture, etc. – produce “bourgeois ideology” in order to reproduce the “class rule.”[26] This Marxist condemnation of ideology 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 its material relationships, which seeks to legitimize and maintain self-interested power structures.[27] Marx, nonetheless, alleged that he scientifically disclosed material conditions by empirically analyzing productive forces, which eventually would reveal themselves irrespective of ideologues. The premise of economic determinism is 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 proletarians’ ability  to develop a class-conscious reaction to their material conditions by themselves are, as such, in stark opposition to this position.

The Making of Class Consciousness
In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson, writing from a new left historical perspective, seems to reinforce Lenin’s view that class-consciousness among the masses depend on intellectual influence, instead of being a response to their material conditions. [28] Importantly, Thompson and Lenin’s angles are dissimilar. Their outlook on the aspirations of the masses, respectively, on the established Russian working class, and on the emerging English working class, fundamentally differs. Yet both Thompson and Lenin arguably embrace an idealist framework in their emphasis on the role of intellectuals and the power of persuasive ideas. 

Lenin endorsed a top-down assessment of the Russian proletariat, whom he considered to be merely preoccupied with their own material status, compared to Thompson’s history from below which depicts the nascent English working class movement’s battle for political rights. The different conditions for the working class in Russia, after its 1890s early industrialization, and the emerging English working class in the 1820s makes the comparison challenging. However, precisely for this reason, it is fruitful to compare Thompson and Lenin’s depiction on the masses because they are preoccupied with similar questions from distinctive positions.

As we have seen, Lenin faulted workers for their excessive focus on narrow economic self-interest, instead of on the broader political system. Thompson, on the other hand, highlights the impressive determination of the British working class to educate themselves in spite of hard physical 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 workers 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 identity of ’Free-Born Englishmen’ and their strong regard for personal liberty. The heightened emphasis on freedom was a direct result of the British government authoritarian turn with the implementations of the censoring Six Acts in 1819, leading to increased poplar demand for parliamentary reform. These six judicial acts limited free speech through sedition and blasphemous libel legislation and newspaper duties. They also sought to crack down on 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 laborers; it also relates to the initial discussion on the materialist doctrine, which holds that necessities prevail over abstract ideological concepts. Nonetheless, Thompson’s account of the radical emphasis on individual-oriented natural rights in shaping class-consciousness – exemplified with the notorious court-battles of Richard Carlile and William Cobbett – does not categorically refute Marx’s theory of needs. It may be argued that freedom from autocratic rulers is a necessary perquisite for the proletarian revolution. Marx’s 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 basic 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 in England until the 1830s, while the more pure socialist ideals came many years later. There were, however, plenty of nascent examples of a collective consciousness, such as proclamations Universal Suffrage by working men.[30] Moreover, the dominant sentiments in the early radical movements was primarily battles for freedoms, which is closely attached to libertarian concepts of right in relation to government. Yet, Thompson depicts a wide array of movements, ranging from Unitarians, “free-thinking Christians”, and Republicans, to labor organizations, with diverse philosophies and political positions.

Although a common denominator of these radical movements primarily were a preoccupation with Enlightenment ideas of reason and freedom, Thompson does not omit material struggles, including trade unionism, cooperative and anti-capitalist social experiments. However, these movements were characterized by their diverse nature with overlapping and shifting interests, not the essentialist class-consciousness of Marx. 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 insignificant because class-consciousness transcends intellectual hegemonies. A Marxist defense, based on his theory of the increasing polarization of the classes, is thus that the 1820s’ nascent formation of class-consciousness 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 defenses for why middle class evaporation, alongside communist revolutions, has subsequently failed to materialize.

Political mass organizing in the 1820s England successfully pressured for parliamentary and democratic reforms, such as promoting free speech, even without “class consciousness”. This mass-mobilization occurred throughout Europe, during the so-called “Age of Revolutions,” which permanently altered its government structures. 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, presents a different account of the diverse and susceptible nature of the emerging working class, where intellectual inspirations prompted fluctuating ideological beliefs, seemingly independent from 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 spite of economic hardships, many laborers 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 the social effects of capitalism, the materialist analysis is hardly sufficient to explain why England, the epicenter of industrialization, never saw a full blown successful socialist labor movement in its development from industrialism to post-industrialism. Thompson’s primary historical insight, then is the rejection of working class “generalizations,”[34] which, alongside, Lenin’s autocratic revolutionary approach, illuminate this Marxist riddle. 

Conclusive Thoughts
The debate over materialism and idealism in the Marxist tradition has profound effects on the theories of political change and revolutions. Marxist theory suffers when faced with reality, which might explain the historical failure of Marxist revolutions in the post-industrial world. This is primarily a failure of its economic determinism, and not on its intellectual influence on revolutions worldwide. Hence, the discussion on economic materialism is relevant for the further development of neo-Marxism. Indeed, many communists have come to reject Marx’s determinism. The intellectual divergence between Marx and Lenin curiously relates to the current state of Marxism, in that only a small minority of Western working people considers themselves to be communists. Marxism has arguably become, or has always been as Lenin conceivably thought, elitist in its pursuit of egalitarianism. This is particularly true after Marxism became institutionalized in Western academia in the 1960s. There are perhaps even more Marxist professors, a “bourgeoisie intelligentsia” as Marx himself, than Marxist manual laborers. This supports Lenin’s idealist emphasis in spreading the communist doctrine, especially in order to influence political systems.

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

[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,, 2006 (Accessed 22/11/2015)
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. Accessed 29/11/2015.

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

[25] This is indeed an either-or question: The materialist view that economic conditions influence people’s thinking must be incorrect if the working class largely fails to accept this oppressive nature of their labor relations. However, if the materialist view is correct, the detrimental economic analysis of Marx cannot simultaneously be correct 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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