Ideology and class struggle - Pierre Guillaume

Karl Kautsky

A classic restatement of the views of Marx and Engels on ideology and the formation of class consciousness, contrasting them with the diametrically opposed views of Kautsky and Lenin, published in the French journal Spartacus in 1977 by the owner of La Vieille Taupe bookstore and the publishing house of the same name, formerly a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier and an important figure of the ultra-left during the 1960s and 1970s, who was later to become notorious for “Holocaust denialism”.

For more on Guillaume's Holocaust denialism see John Gray's introduction to the Question of the State.

Ideology and Class Struggle – Pierre Guillaume

Is it true that the working class is the bearer of a will and a capacity for radical revolutionary transformation? Is it capable of realizing on a world scale the real human community, social humanity?

To put it another way, what is the meaning of more than one hundred fifty years of intermittent working class struggles, extending from exhilarating victories to bitter defeats and setbacks in which all appeared to be definitively lost, such as we experienced after the failure of the Spanish Revolution, and from which we have barely emerged?

Since the very origins of capitalism, when the working class only existed in an embryonic form, communism has appeared from the beginning as the objective, the ultimate goal, the profound meaning and immanent tendency of working class struggle…. The first coherent ideological expressions of a communist theory, however, were produced by the “utopian socialists”. Saint-Simon and Fourier in France, and Owen in England, were the most famous utopian socialists. They had numerous predecessors, among others the priest Meslier and Sylvain Marechal. As heirs of the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century, however, they did not conceive of communism as the product of the revolutionary struggle of the workers, nor did they conceive of it as the ineluctable tendency of capitalist society…. To the contrary, they observed that, with the birth of capitalism, the evils it causes and the resulting collapse of the illusions of Enlightenment philosophy made it necessary to found the emancipation of the entire human species on the basis of abstract reason. The freedom conceived by the philosophers was in reality nothing but freedom for the bourgeois to engage in free trade, and the freedom for the proletarians to sell their labor power. Equality was only an abstract equality, the application to that abstraction known as the Human Person of equal rights for all, while in reality it was applied to persons who were fundamentally unequal, depending on their position in the relations of production. As for fraternity, it was merely the fig-leaf, the mystification by means of which the nascent bourgeoisie sought to disguise the permanent war in which the various bourgeois were mutually engaged due to competition and especially the conflict between owners and non-owners, bourgeois and proletarians.

The revolutionary motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, at first a weapon of the bourgeoisie against the feudal system and the despotic monarchical states, was immediately transformed into the weapon of the bourgeoisie in their open or dissimulated war against the proletariat.

Far from being synonymous with the emancipation of man, the state of reason, founded by the French Revolution, only emancipated a thin layer of the population, the proprietary layer, the bourgeoisie, at the same time that it emancipated capital from all the constraints of feudal law. The immense majority of the population sank into a condition of total dependence. It was reduced to being nothing but a commodity in the capitalist cycle, totally subject to the owners of the means of production, and this subjection was accompanied by a profound material and moral decline and, after the French Revolution, absolute pauperization.

“In a word, compared with the splendid promises of the philosophers, the social and political institutions born of the ‘triumph of reason’ were bitterly disappointing caricatures. All that was wanting was the men to formulate this disappointment, and they came with the turn of the century.” [Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific] Thus, for the utopians, witnesses of the evident poverty of society, the State of Reason founded by the bourgeois revolution was not reasonable enough. The Reason that founded it was not a sufficient reason. This was why they undertook, from the point of view of reason and justice, a merciless critique of the bourgeois world.

From this critical analysis of bourgeois society undertaken in the name of reason, they drew for the first time the conclusion that communism is the only “rational” form of society, and the solution for all the evils from which capitalist society suffers.

“At this time, however, the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed. Modern industry, which had just arisen in England, was still unknown in France. But modern industry develops, on the one hand, the conflicts which make absolutely necessary a revolution in the mode of production, conflicts not only between the classes begotten of it, but also between the very productive forces and the forms of exchange created by it. And, on the other hand, it develops, in these very gigantic productive forces, the means of ending these conflicts. If, therefore, about the year 1800, the conflicts arising from the new social order were only just beginning to take shape, this holds still more fully as to the means of ending them. The propertyless masses of Paris, during the Reign of Terror, were able for a moment to gain the mastery. But, in doing so, they only proved how impossible it was for their domination to last under the conditions then obtaining.”

“This historical situation also dominated the founders of socialism. To the crude conditions of capitalist production and the crude class conditions corresponded crude theories. The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure fantasies.” [Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring.]

Engels then quotes liberally from the brilliant insights contained in the writings of the utopian socialists, insights that scientific socialism would further develop.

It would appear, then, that revolutionary theory, communist consciousness, has been elaborated outside of the working class movement, by intellectuals who provide that theory later to the working class, and this would therefore contradict our claim that “communism has appeared first of all as the objective, the ultimate goal, the profound meaning and the immanent tendency of the working class struggles”.

This is a dangerous illusion. And it is by way of this false conception that idealist ideas of bourgeois ideology, and all the deviations that the sacred jargon defines as voluntarist and opportunist, generally penetrate revolutionary theory. (We shall return to this issue below.)

It would thus seem that, contrary to Marx’s central thesis, “t is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”, it is instead the case that communist consciousness elaborated from the outside by specialized thinkers or, in addition, revolutionary theory, the correct line, class consciousness, whatever you prefer, imported from outside the proletariat, would transform the latter’s existence, that is, its real practice, once it had absorbed this external contribution.

We shall therefore analyze, in order to resolve this enigma, the nature of the real relation between the birth of critical-utopian socialist theories and the real movement of history and of the working class.

The idea that the fundamental theories of communism emerged from the minds of the utopian thinkers and were then delivered to the workers is only an optical illusion. This is certainly the way that the utopians themselves represent their relation to the working class and history, but this was a pure and simple ideological inversion of reality. The real relation is otherwise. For no idea or invention was ever the product of an isolated mind, or of one or even a handful of specialized thinkers. The production of ideas is an eminently social process. The appearance of a new idea in the mind of an individual is simultaneously conditioned by the entirety of the historically conditioned cultural and ideological production of the era in question, and by the history of the individual, the totality of his human experience, in all its concrete determinations, from which are derived the psychological structure of his character, his point of view and his position in the circulation and production of the social stock of ideas, concepts, information or prejudices, which he has imbibed and on the basis of which he worked. (And in a class society, the concrete determinations of social existence are conditioned by his situation in the relations of production.) The production of an idea, a concept, an ideology or a theory always implies the informal collaboration of a mass of anonymous producers who will always remain unknown, just as is the case with the production of an automobile.

Above all, however, in order for the utopians to carry out their powerful critical analyses of bourgeois society, bourgeois society must itself exist, and for their analyses to be critical, the contradictions and defects of that society must have become manifest. And how can these defects be manifested except by the struggle of those who suffer from them? The irrationality of bourgeois society, the failure of bourgeois humanism, the inhumanity of the conditions that created the proletariat, were vividly experienced by the proletariat before they were subjected to critical analyses. And it was the strikes, revolts and riots that attracted the attention of the thinkers to the irrationality of the system; it was not the thinkers who attracted the attention of the proletarians to the inhumanity of their condition.

There is no way to ascertain whether the conditions of existence of the elephants in the Indian jungle are no longer elephantine if the elephants do not show us this is the case by engaging in a revolt, or (at least for the elephants) by the slow disappearance of the species.

Thus, far from being the product of the minds of a handful of intellectuals, communist and socialist ideas were primarily the products of the class struggle of the workers, who first expressed their ideas anonymously and informally in order to grasp their situation and to understand their struggle. On the basis of these collectively produced social ideas, the utopians constructed their systems. These ideas were, long before the utopians, very much alive among the proletariat which, precisely because it had hardly just emerged from feudal (the estates) or pre-capitalist (the peasantry) relations, felt with an acuteness and clarity that were much greater than in our time the scandal of wage labor, and the subjugation implied by the fact of being a free laborer, that is, juridically free of all the servile and guild restrictions, and therefore free to sell his labor power to whoever he wished, but also free of everything, that is, dispossessed of everything and, as a result, separated from the means of production which had been transformed into capital in the hands of their owners. It could be easily demonstrated, with regard to what is customarily referred to as “popular culture”, and especially in the songs of the workplace, that the birth of wage labor was experienced by the proletarians as a scandal and an upheaval, and that immediately the need arose of putting an end to this upheaval by appropriating the means of production. The workers’ opportunity to compare their new status with their recent previous situation, a situation that was still widespread within society, allowed the workers to immediately grasp the difference much more vividly than we can today, when wage labor appears to be natural. This diffuse consciousness constitutes the starting point and the precondition for critical-utopian communism. The socialist systems are merely the top storey of an ideological edifice whose foundations were constructed by the ideological labor of the workers themselves on the basis of their proletarian experience; as the structure is built higher, new artisans make their contributions with different concerns and points of view. In the meantime, it has been forgotten who built the foundations of the building and under what conditions they labored. At the very top of the building, some artists sculpted statues, some of which are very beautiful, but these artists signed their works, thus stamping the trademark of the bourgeoisie on what was no more than a product of the class struggle.

This does not mean, however, that these ideological systems are produced directly by the class struggle and are nothing but the reflection of the objective and material world, as the primitive materialism criticized by Marx claims (“Theses on Feuerbach”, and other texts), a position that degenerated Marxism succumbed to,1 or that the ideologists are nothing but spokesmen for the different classes, or a kind of echo chamber for existing ideas that were completely perfected outside of the classes and that came from who knows where, or else “reflect” the material world by means of who knows what kind of process. Ideas and theories are the products of human activity, of human labor, not a passive reflection, and this labor thus transforms a raw material into a “humanized” product, experiences and sensations into concepts, it organizes these concepts, transforms them, etc.

But the proletariat did not wait for specialized thinkers who had the advantage of bourgeois culture to arrive at the theoretical conclusion, thanks to their individual efforts, that the source of all of the evils that afflict society was private appropriation of wealth, and this private appropriation had to be abolished and communism established…. As long as the proletariat has existed, that is, as long as there has been a class of free men who possess nothing to live on but their labor power, a class of men who are therefore constrained to sell their labor power in exchange for a wage to the owners of the means of production, it has manifested by way of its actions (and therefore by its practical consciousness, the only kind that interests us) the unequivocal judgment that it pronounces against private property, and its spontaneous tendency (since it is in conformance with its existence) to appropriate by means of violence, without any other formalities, that which was seized from it by means of fraud: the conditions of labor, the means of production, which only exist in capitalist society in the form of Capital. And it quickly identified its real enemy: not the bourgeoisie, but Capital, and capital in all its forms: means of production, commodities, money. One discovers the manifestation of this practical consciousness, of this consciousness in action, and the beginnings of ideological expression, not only in the working class strikes and riots that have taken place since the start of the 18th century, but even in the feudal system and in antiquity, to the extent that narrowly circumscribed sectors in which wage labor was established existed within societies dominated by feudal, slave or Asiatic relations.

The proletariat has no need to learn from books, even “Marxist” books, how to identify its enemies, it is enough for it to suffer from them.

“… [T]he proletariat at once proclaims its antagonism to the society of private property in the most decisive, aggressive, ruthless and forceful manner. The Silesian rebellion starts where the French and English workers’ finish, namely with an understanding of the nature of the proletariat. This superiority stamps the whole episode. Not only were machines destroyed, those competitors of the workers, but also the account books, the titles of ownership, and whereas all other movements had directed their attacks primarily at the visible enemy, namely the industrialists, the Silesian workers turned also against the hidden enemy, the bankers” (Marx, “Critical Notes on the Article: ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’”).

This does not mean that the proletariat necessarily possesses, by virtue of who knows what mystery, the “inspired science”, nor that it automatically possesses a clear and adequate theory of ends and means. For communism “… is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do” (Marx, The Holy Family, Chapter 4, “Critical Comment No. 2”).

Communism is not, then, a “project” or a “program” of social transformation brought from the outside, not even one that is ideologically created by the working class itself and accepted by the class as a whole; communism is the spontaneous product, the immanent and internal logic of its struggle.

It is this struggle that constitutes the basis and the only source of all revolutionary theory, however abstract and general this theory may be.

Therefore, it is THE EXISTENCE OF THE PROLETARIAT, without any mediation, which is the historical and theoretical foundation of communism. Likewise, it was the existence of the bourgeoisie, not Reason, which was the historical and practical foundation of bourgeois society. For “n studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production … and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” (Marx, [i]Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

The proletariat does not denounce capitalist society from the point of view of Reason, it denounces it, in its practice, from the point of view of its existence; and when this denunciation is consciously expressed, by way of expressions that are “ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict”, this only enunciates the meaning of what the proletariat is doing.

“By heralding the dissolution of the hereto existing world order, the proletariat merely proclaims the secret of its own existence, for it is the factual dissolution of that world order” (Marx: A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Introduction”).

But before we attempt to define this EXISTENCE OF THE PROLETARIAT, and therefore the movement that it ineluctably sets in motion to destroy capitalist society, and by this very movement, to create other relations of production, and consequently other relations between men and the goods they produce—communism—we shall pause to analyze the meaning of the ideological inversion that we have just exposed.

We have seen that critical-utopian communism was nothing but the ideological product of the development of capitalist society and its antagonisms, and therefore the indirect product of working class struggles; but we have also seen that theory, the ideological system, was not itself conscious of this relation whose mediations we have just briefly enumerated.

We shall first examine the consequences of these facts for theory itself.

Exclusively due to the fact that it is not conscious of this relation, theory is endangered and becomes mired in speculation. Besides a few brilliant insights, this “communism” becomes a pure abstraction and a pure fantasy, incapable of testing in practice “the reality and the power, the material nature of its thought”.

As a result of this separation, theory becomes falsified. One could subject it to critical criticism, and prove that “its projects” are both unrealizable and suffused with insuperable contradictions that, on the other hand, practice is responsible for exposing, with its customary lack of respect for ideas. The attempts to establish communist communities, phalansteries, etc., outlined by the utopians, were either never carried out because the conditions for their creation did not yet exist and they inspired little enthusiasm among the workers, or else the attempts that were made collapsed under the pressure of external or internal contradictions.

Now, however, we shall identify the practical consequences, for the revolutionary movement, of this fundamental theoretical error: this lack of understanding of the real relation between theory and the movement of history.

The “ideologization” of theory is not just fatal for theory; it is counterrevolutionary in practice, insofar as it necessarily concludes by withdrawing historical initiative from the proletariat, in order to establish it elsewhere. The separation of theory always leads to a theory of separation, and constitutes the theoretical basis of this separation.

With this in mind, where did the conceptions of the utopian communists lead, even if they were the indirect products of the class struggle? Instead of saying something like this to the workers: “Carry on with your merciless struggle, which has only just begun, against bourgeois society, against capital and the commodity in all its forms, and against the bourgeois state, which is nothing but their defender and final guarantee. Our theoretical analyses, in the creation of which we made use of the abundance of materials provided by bourgeois culture, prove not only that your struggle is justified, and that it is the only possible road for the workers, something that you already know, but also that the means of struggle that you have created, the strike, the riot, the armed insurrection, are the best means, or at least we have not found any better ones, and by acting in this manner you will not only emancipate yourselves, but you will emancipate all of humanity, which is why we put our forces at the service of your program.”

Instead of employing such language, they addressed the workers in just the opposite way: “Proletarians, we understand your struggles and often admire your heroism, but we are obliged to tell you that you are on the wrong road, you will clash with society and the state the way a butterfly hits a window, you will uselessly squander your forces, our theoretical analyses permit us to tell you that you must proceed in a different way….” The prescriptions vary from one utopian to another. For the utopians, it was essentially a question of the creation of communist communities, phalansteries, etc., from which private property, and thus the mercantile logic of exchange, was eradicated by formal rules and regulations.

Thus, any theory that ceases to be the theory of the real movement of history, and therefore in our era the theory of the development of capitalist society, and of the class struggle of the workers against Capital, degenerates ipso facto into an ideology and expresses interests that are opposed, or at least alien, to the proletariat. It is self-evident that the development of such an ideology does not depend only on a deficiency of theoretical ability, or a lack of correct analysis; it expresses, to the contrary, a particular point of view regarding society and history, and therefore a particular position in society and history, a position that is separate and which perceives itself as separate from the proletariat.

This is not just valid for the origins of the workers movement, at a time when class antagonisms were hardly developed quantitatively (since qualitatively the Capital-Labor antagonism is invariant as long as wage labor endures), but it is also a constant feature of the workers movement, and this analysis is the touchstone that will permit the discovery of the gold in revolutionary theory amidst the dross of the various ideological commodities offered for mass consumption. This method will above all render it possible to assess the revolutionary character of the theories and organizations that have existed up to our time, and also make it possible to understand how a theory, however revolutionary it may be, sinks into ideology, and thus ceases at the same time to be scientific and revolutionary.

The concept we have just discussed, which is nothing but a paraphrase of Marx and Engels, is radically opposed to the revolutionary conceptions of Lenin and their degenerate, so-called Leninist, versions. For Lenin repeats almost word-for-word in his “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” (March 1913), Kautsky’s text, “The Three Sources of Marxism” (1908): that communism is no longer the organic and necessary product of the movement of capitalist society and the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat that is derived from that society; “Communism”, that is, “socialist theory”, is the product of a theoretical CRITIQUE of capitalist society, and its most highly elaborated form, Marxism, is the product of a synthesis, carried out by Marx, of the natural and psychological sciences, on the one hand, and of German, French and English philosophy, on the other.

This synthesis is conceived as an internal movement within thought, due to the dynamic of intelligence.

For Kautsky, the bourgeois sciences had reached a very high level of development, yet had come up against a certain number of problems…. Then came Marx. He saw that history is the result of…. (See “The Three Sources of Marxism”).

It is true that Kautsky sincerely appealed for “the unity of the workers movement and socialism”, which is the title of Chapter 4 of his pamphlet. So did Lenin: this is the topic addressed in “What Is To Be Done?” and it was his lifelong goal.

How nice of them! For in their view: “The workers movement and socialism are by no means identical by nature” (Kautsky, op. cit.). For both Kautsky and Lenin: “the native form of the workers movement is purely economic” (Kautsky, op. cit.), whereas “socialism presupposes a profound knowledge of modern society” (Kautsky, op. cit.), a theme that is developed by Lenin in “What Is To Be Done?”, where, speaking of the strikes of 1886-1890, he says: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without…. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness….”, etc. As for socialist doctrine, it “… grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia”.

Thus, just like Kautsky, Lenin saw Marxism, or “social democratic” consciousness, as an ideological product. He even declared that its production was the specific work of revolutionary intellectuals who had definitely opted for the camp of the working class, but who were the only ones who were capable of attaining a revolutionary consciousness, thanks to the theoretical critique they applied to capitalism, based on the elements supplied to them by the bourgeois culture of which they were the depositories, or at least, to which they had access.

This seems to be a paraphrase, at least, of an obvious historical reality: the role of non-working class intellectuals, especially Marx, but also many others … in the elaboration of revolutionary theory. But this conception is totally idealist. On the one hand it rests on the illusion that revolutionary consciousness is produced by an individual mind (or a handful of such minds); on the other hand, it does not pose the basic question: this consciousness, WHAT is it consciousness of? Thus, the sentence from “What Is To Be Done?”, “the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness….”, is actually nothing more than what your ordinary person thinks of the movement of the working class. This formulation is all the more astonishing, as we have the right to ask WHOM the working class is supposed to hand itself over to in order to attain a communist consciousness, and WHERE does this communist consciousness come from? Lenin’s formulation, furthermore, contradicts the theses of Marx and Engels, who demonstrate, by means of their study of the insurrectional movements of the proletariat, that the working class had not waited for Lenin, or even for Marx and Engels, to rise to the level of the practical consciousness of the necessity of communism.

Lenin’s response, after Kautsky, to this disturbing “discovery” is even more shocking. For Kautsky and Lenin, theory, or revolutionary consciousness, is supplied from the outside, by the bourgeois intellectuals.

This concept is radically opposed to Marx’s critique of idealism and of all previous materialism, including that of Feuerbach (Thesis No. 3, "Theses on Feuerbach"), where Marx says that Feuerbach “… forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society”.

We may complete Thesis No. 3 by paraphrasing it as follows: “Lenin and Kautsky do not understand that the convergence of the transformation of circumstances and the transformation of human activity—or the transformation of humanity itself—cannot be conceived and understood rationally except as revolutionary practice.”

Marx did not abstractly oppose reality, or the objective world, on the one hand, and consciousness, or the subjective world, on the other hand, to the practical activity that connected them. To the contrary, he examines them as a totality, and shows that these categories, practical objective-subjective activity, examined in a different but still abstract way as a moment of a single totality, are the products of a petrified thought, which is in turn a product of a class society, in which human activity is effectively split by the division of labor.

If we follow Marx’s conception, it is simply absurd to think that communist consciousness can be elaborated outside the working class (such a consciousness is an abstract consciousness, realized within the framework of the faculty of Sight, a spectator’s consciousness, stripped of any practical effectiveness) and it is just as absurd to think that this consciousness can be introduced from the outside, by propaganda;2 such is the contention of Kautsky and Lenin, however, who conceived of themselves as educators of the working class, before the avatars of history made one of them a government minister, and the other a brilliant leader, fates equally unenviable for anyone who lays claim to proletarian theory.

The Leninist theory of the party is logically derived from Lenin’s conception of theory and its relation to the spontaneous movement of the class. It ineluctably follows that if professional revolutionaries join with the working class, they only do so in order to lead it (in the way a “boss” does, and not just by offering “good leadership”, since Lenin’s theory effectively allows for the consolidation of “good leadership”, but precisely this good leadership includes the liquidation of the “leaders” by means that depend on the resistance they offer).

This explains the reason why the Leninist idea of the party is so fashionable among our modern “Leninists”. Even when they forget significant parts of other aspects of Leninism—especially Lenin’s revolutionary theses—their advocacy of the theory of the “leading role of the party” is merely a defense of their real power (from Brezhnev to Waldeck Rochet, via Gomulka and Mao) or their mythical power (Trotskyists or Maoists in France).

This concept implies the need to build a revolutionary party, destined to lead the struggle of the proletariat to the right road, which the proletariat would be incapable of finding by itself. This will therefore result in detouring the most combative elements of the proletariat towards this labor of Sisyphus, and diverting them from their real tasks. The determinant criterion will cease to be the struggle of the class itself, to which every worker is constrained to participate due to his situation, to be instead the “construction of the organization and the leadership”. The class struggle is only conceived as an elemental revolt, to which only the party can provide meaning. This conception therefore deprives both communism and revolutionary theory of their foundation, in order to shift this foundation to the capabilities of the leaders. Working class struggles are no longer anything but means to reinforce the organization, and in the most deranged cases, attempts are made to construct socialism without the participation of or against the will of the proletariat. Deprived of its basis, revolutionary theory floats in abstraction and metaphysics. Communism is no longer the practical result of the revolutionary struggles of the working class, but is defined in the name of an abstract rationality, varying according to circumstances and the practical position of its authors, but in every case it is no longer the “real movement that abolishes the conditions of existence”, or it is not the only means to abolish them.

Before analyzing the absurdities to which, in Lenin, the concepts first developed by Kautsky could lead, and without attempting to provide, in the framework of this article, a general evaluation of the works of Lenin, which cannot be reduced to just the theses of “What Is To Be Done?” or those of Materialism and Empiro-Criticism, we shall see why this conception is mistaken, at its very root: the theory of the origins of socialist consciousness elaborated in “The Three Sources…”

Contrary to Kautsky’s summary assertion: “This is how they (Marx and Engels) created modern scientific socialism by means of the fusion of all that English philosophy, French philosophy and German philosophy possessed that was great and fertile”; which was taken up by Lenin: “His doctrine emerged as the direct and immediate continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism…. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism”, Marx’s theory IS NOT the product of the synthesis, not even a dialectical synthesis, of French socialism, English economics and German philosophy, that is, the ideological synthesis of three ideological systems created by the bourgeoisie.

It is true that Marx made abundant use of these sources and never ceased to emphasize this fact himself, but he also devoted a voluminous text3 --eight volumes in the French edition—to highlight the fact that, in addition to how he made use of them, the radical break that separated him from the bourgeois theoreticians of political economy, and he explains this in Book One of Capital. He spent most of his life engaged in a theoretical and political struggle against “French socialism”. As for German philosophy, he did not deem it necessary to publish, while he was alive, a work he co-wrote with Engels in which, and by means of which, both of them signaled their radical break with their shared philosophic past. They did not feel it was necessary to publish The German Ideology because they thought that this work was the simple testimony of a personal transition, and because Marx considered this break to be the precondition and the starting point for revolutionary theory.

Unpublished during Lenin’s lifetime, The German Ideology constitutes in any case the a posteriori refutation of Lenin’s and Kautsky’s interpretations of the theme we are now considering.

It is instructive, however, to observe that the workers movement did not need the publication of The German Ideology to carry out the practical and theoretical critique of Lenin’s positions, from the very moment of its inception. Trotsky, especially in his text Our Political Tasks, but also in texts like Results and Prospects and “Report of the Siberian Delegation”, or in the lesser known work entitled The Year 1905, undertook a critique of the Bolshevik positions and rediscovered the themes, and sometimes even the formulations, of Marx.

The fact that Trotsky himself believed, as a result of his tactical opportunism, beginning in 1917, that he had to downplay the points of disagreement that pitted him against Lenin from 1901 to 1916, changes nothing. However much the various sects of Trotskyists systematically conceal these texts and no longer publish them in French, they constitute Trotsky’s principal connection with revolutionary theory. Their translation and publication, which are now being carried out (by non-Trotskyists) are direct consequences of the May Movement in France. These texts present what Trotsky had to say about the relations between the movement of thought and the class struggle.

Having said this, it is no less true that Marx and Engels and all the revolutionary theoreticians without exception had often drawn water from the well of bourgeois science. But Kautsky and Lenin made use of this fact, this obvious and phenomenological reality, without being able to penetrate its mechanism and its profound meaning, and they tried to base the role of outside elements in the elaboration of doctrine, and in this context the word “outside” is to be understood in its fullest sense, that is, not in terms of outside “by chance”—we assert that these intellectuals are not workers—but outside by essence in a certain way, that is, using elements that, by their nature, are not and cannot be elaborated by the working class. For, as we have seen, “French socialism” is nothing but the ideological form by which the nascent struggles of the French working class were expressed, in a mystified manner. What Marx discovered in French Socialism was nothing but the form by which the reality of the class struggle was manifested, and he could not validly utilize it in his work of theoretical production until he had submitted it to criticism and thus identified its unconscious foundation: the proletarian struggle in its concrete determinations. What this revolutionary struggle of the proletariat encounters is the reality of bourgeois society, the capitalist economy, of which English economic science, by way of Smith and Ricardo, was merely the most highly developed ideological form, by means of which the bourgeoisie became conscious of its own system. As the proletarian struggle develops, it encounters capitalist reality and experiences it in its totality, and therefore needs a scientific “theory”, by means of which it expresses its experience and becomes conscious of its practice. This theory is an ideological form, the product of an ideological labor, but it is not an ideology, insofar as it is conscious of the practical root of its “ideas”.

It is self-evident that the elaboration of this theory would draw extensively on bourgeois economic science (Marx often highlights this by means of numerous citations), just as the proletariat, by expropriating, for the purpose of simultaneously expropriating its own generic being, all of social life, and the products of past and present human activity—which only exists in capitalist society in the form of capital which stands in opposition to the proletariat—expropriates ipso facto the totality of human culture, but in a different way. This bourgeois science, however, would only be useful at the price of a complete reversal of its perspective.

This relation is even more clearly established by the use to which Marx put what is commonly referred to as “The German Philosophy”, and especially the philosophy of Hegel. Incapable of attaining the political realization of his Being, as the French bourgeoisie did by means of the French Revolution, and incapable of attaining its economic realization, as the English bourgeoisie did by means of the fantastic expansion of English capitalism in the 19th century, in a politically and economically fragmented Germany, blocked on every front, in its development, by remnants of feudalism in which it was champing at the bit and restlessly stamping the ground, the German bourgeoisie would attain the highest ideological development by means of the production of philosophical systems and of a critical intellectual lifestyle. Incapable of sweeping aside its obstacles in practice, it based the necessity of its evolution, or rather its future, on the philosophy of history, conceived as the development of the spirit, of the idea, that finally realizes, at the end of history, the ideological representation of the reign of the bourgeoisie, by way of the historical dialectic in which the spirit loses itself and rediscovers itself by being incarnated in the world. Without making an attempt to depict a system that any brief summary would impoverish to the point of ridiculousness, we shall point out that Hegel’s system is, first of all, History as thought. It is even the creation of the most remarkable and perfect spirit to “think History”, precisely to the extent that his dialectical method allows him to overcome the false problems and antinomies of dualist and metaphysical thought; in particular, that of determinism and freedom.

Since the Hegelian system is an attempt to apprehend the real movement of History, the elements of the method, as well as the concepts produced to think about History, can be used for proletarian theory, although Hegel himself, and his entire system, remained on the terrain of idealism and the bourgeoisie, just as certain concepts and elements of methodology, created by Smith and Ricardo to characterize economic phenomena, are perfectly utilizable, without having to reinvent them from scratch. It would be a serious error, however, one that was indeed committed by Kautsky and Lenin, despite Marx’s extensive explanations, to believe, on the pretext that part of the materials are the same, that revolutionary theory is nothing but a continuation of bourgeois theory, or even its culmination, as if the “fated development of thought” would lead to socialist conclusions before which the bourgeois thinkers would have recoiled. Just as the mosques of Tunis, constructed on the ruins of the Greco-Roman temples by utilizing their marble blocks, are not the continuation and completion of these temples and, to the contrary, their construction presupposes the destruction of the temples in order for the mosques to exist.

In the same way, the best products of bourgeois thought must not only be stripped of an idealist accretion that marred this stage of the development of human thought, but must also be totally transformed in their very structure and integrated into a new totality, although the example of the original thought of the preceding class is of use in understanding the new perspective and the new construction. For not only are there “stages” in a developing “human” thought, there are also radical ruptures between different ways of thinking, because they have different relations and functions with reality. Thus, there is ancient thought, and feudal thought, bourgeois thought, and proletarian thought (among others), the succeeding thought (which annuls by overcoming), which integrates or does not integrate the preceding form of thought. (Thus, bourgeois thought integrates, by overcoming it, feudal thought, it rediscovers and integrates classical thought, feudal thought loses the thought of antiquity, which does not mean that the thought of antiquity was completely lost, since feudal society did not and could not constitute a cohesive totality. Whereas the Church, although “feudalized” and coextensive with feudal society, is not reducible to the feudal world, it was the commodity that was spread all over that society and lived in its interstices that was its real antagonist.)

The passage from one form to another, however, from ancient thought to feudal thought, just like the passage from French socialism, English economics, and German philosophy to revolutionary theory, is not a process that takes place within thought. The possibility of this transition is conditioned by the modification of the relation between man and nature, man and labor, or, to put it another way, since we are talking about a class society, by the overthrow of the relations of production and the appearance of a new class that, due to its position in the relations of production, has a different view of nature, history and labor (or the language of mathematics). More precisely, it has a different relation to nature and human productive activity in all its aspects. The precondition for the overturn accomplished by Marx, which was certainly carried out on the basis of elements supplied by bourgeois ideology, to form the basis for a new conception of the world, has its basis and its roots in the practical existence of the proletariat and the practical critique exercised by the latter against bourgeois society. In order for Marx to elaborate, on the theoretical plane, the overcoming of the antinomy that opposes materialism and idealism that was inherited from bourgeois thought, an antinomy produced in turn by the real breach introduced into human activity by the appearance of class society and the shattering of the primitive community, it was still necessary for a class to exist that was, in its own existence, the practical solution of this antinomy. The Proletariat can provide a practical solution for this contradiction because it unites in its basic activity (labor) thought and matter, the “modification of consciousness and the modification of matter” (or of the “Circumstances” in Thesis No. 3, that is, of the objective world), categories that are conceived as separate by bourgeois thought, because they are effectively separated by the bourgeoisie.

The history of thought prior to Marx was effectively characterized by the irreducible opposition between thought, the spirit, and the idea, on the one side, and matter, or the objective world, on the other. For idealism, the internal movement of thought, of the idea, of the spirit, is the motor force of movement. Thought becomes conscious of the objective world and, by its own labor, produces movement. For materialism, on the other hand, it is the material, objective world that, by its own movement, drags along the movement of thought, which “becomes conscious of” and reflects the material world. Human productive activity is the solution in acts of this antinomy. Thought and action, theory and practice, are inseparable moments of this activity. Without theory, there can be no practice, but without practice, there can be no theory. Labor, man’s relation to nature, is both the means by which man transforms and produces the objective world, and the means by which he produces himself. The modification of thought and the modification of matter coincide. Pure thought is not a human relation to matter. It is the relation of man who is cut off from his properly human activity, and of the spectator from a world that he cannot change.

In consideration of the above, one may measure the theoretical backwardness of Lenin, particularly in Materialism and Empiro-Criticism. In the latter work, Lenin attacks Mach, whose idealism he denounces. To do so, he takes all the weakest and incontestably most idealist points in Mach, in order to liquidate the most important elements. This procedure of gutter polemic is totally absent from the works of Marx, who, to the contrary, emphasizes, even in the works of his worst enemies, the positive aspects of their work. This is because Marx’s objective is never to liquidate an enemy, but, to the contrary, to profoundly expropriate the thought of his enemy, in order to liquidate not his enemy, but only what is idealist or reactionary in his ideas. It could even be claimed that Mach, despite his idealism, is much closer to Marx, and has a better understanding, with his empiro-criticism, of the practical-critical human activity about which Marx speaks, than Lenin, whose “Materialism” is more like vulgar materialism than it is like the conceptions of Marx.

The defect of all the materialism of the past (including that of Lenin), is that the object, reality, the material, is only considered in the form of the object, but not as sensual-human activity, as practice. This is why the active side is elaborated in an abstract way, in opposition to materialism, by idealism, which naturally does not know real, sensual activity, just as Lenin wanted his sensory objects to be really distinct from the ideal objects; but he does not grasp human activity as objective activity. He thus thinks, in Materialism and Empiro-Criticism, that the theoretical relation is the only truly human one, while practice is only established in its vulgar and Judaic phenomenal form. He therefore does not understand the meaning of revolutionary, critical-practical activity. (See Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, Thesis No. 1.)

Lenin even fell far short of the materialists of the 18th century, for whom, just as for Lenin, the world of ideas being nothing but the reflection of the objective world, it is the independent movement of the objective world that determines the movement of ideas, and the materialist philosophers, whose sole task is to fight against idealist illusions, cannot change the world: the world transforms itself, consciousness reflects this transformation. In Lenin, on the other hand, the active side is developed in an abstract and IDEALIST way. Indeed, for Lenin, it is not the subversive, revolutionary activity of the proletariat, its critical-practical activity (of which consciousness and theory is only one aspect, and nothing more than one aspect) which transforms the world. The activity of the class is not addressed by Lenin, except in its “vulgar and Judaic phenomenal form”, as a material force of the objective world. This is why the material force with which Lenin seeks to transform the world is Science, with a capital S, the Science that knows the laws of the objective world, that knows Lenin: Marxism, or at least Lenin’s notion of Marxism. This Science, in order to become a material force, must, of course, be embodied in the masses, but this Science is not the consciousness of the real, spontaneous and organic movement of the proletariat, a mere aspect of its activity, like the glance cast by God on his works on the seventh day (and even his Bible is more “Marxist” than Lenin), because in that case it could not rise above a trade union type consciousness, this Science is something else, something that comes from…. In fact, where does it come from? Lenin, who so often accused his enemies of the same defect, finds himself trying to ride two horses.

Having utilized an abstract procedure to reduce the movement of the working class to a manifestation of brute force, comparable to the waters of a flood, it is self-evident that for this energy to be utilizable it requires the intervention of a hydraulic engineer. Theory, however, since it does not come from the proletariat, and since it would be distasteful to attribute it purely and simply to the class enemy, is attributed to thought itself. Science certainly has an object, but not a subject, unless it is metaphysics. For Lenin, as for Kautsky, the combination of the workers movement and socialism is the legs and the head, the paralyzed and the blind. This is why, when Kautsky, in his last chapter, speaks of the synthesis of theory and practice, he provides a nice example of non-dialectical thought, since he calls the ramshackle juxtaposition of two heterogeneous elements, synthesis. Likewise, when he seeks to refute idealism, by showing that only the proletariat can bring about socialism, Kautsky never rises above the level of the engineer who “discovers” that you cannot produce electricity with theory alone, but that you also need the work of gravity by means of the energy of the floodwaters.

Pierre Guillaume

Originally published in French in April 1977 in the journal, Spartacus, No. 78, Series B.

Translated in April-July 2013 from the Spanish translation published by Ediciones Espartaco as an appendix in Report of the Siberian Delegation by Leon Trotsky.

Spanish language translation was taken from website

  • 1. As is demonstrated by Lenin in his [i]Materialism and Empiro-Criticism, not to speak of Stalinist cretinism.
  • 2. I watch a tennis player and I see that his strokes are not accurate enough, that he is not playing well, that he does not perceive or is unable to respond with his own strategy to the strategy of his opponent, that he is content to return the ball as best he can. My “consciousness” is not correct, nor is it false, it is abstract, devoid of efficacy, and determined by my situation as a spectator. The “Consciousness” possessed by the player is of a totally different kind; it includes, among other things, the immediate perception of fatigue, of physiological, sensory, perceptual and reflex capacities, etc. His consciousness is a moment of his game, and it is inseparable from his game. My consciousness is totally useless for his game. If, after the match ends, I inform him of my conclusions, they will be totally useless for him, unless my analysis is informed by an insider’s grasp of the concrete determinations of the player’s game, by my experience, for example, but then my consciousness is no longer simply elaborated from the outside, and it is partially “from within” and it is only useful in this capacity, it is only admissible in this capacity, and would probably contribute nothing useful to the player that he does not already know, it would just express it differently. At the most, our discussion would lead, not to supplying the player with consciousness, but to the elaboration of a language in which our experiences would be communicable. This is nice, but I no longer have any privilege whatsoever.
  • 3. Theories of Surplus Value.