The real movement - Red and Black Notes

The following article was prompted by an email discussion with a comrade from Britain questioning the use of the term, "The real movement" of communism.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 5, 2009

I. The quote from Marx and Engels The German Ideology where the term first appeared.

II. The statement introducing the Red & Black Notes web page.

III. A comment by Red & Black Notes on the use of the term.

I Marx, Engels & the "Real Movement"

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established , an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

------ The German Ideology, 1845

II Red & Black Notes web page introduction
Communism is not a party programme or a one party state. Communism is simply the movement to overthrow the conditions of life imposed by the rule of capital. This statement is as true today as when in 1848 Marx wrote that workers had nothing to lose but their chains.

Yet 2001 is not 1848. The spectre of communism still haunts capitalism, but capitalism has evolved. This evolution has not ameliorated the need for revolution only the way the workers respond to it. The ‘old' workers movement was composed of parties, unions and mass organizations. By and large those organizations have disappeared or been swallowed by ‘mass' society. Those who seek to rebuild the left, to see a new 1917, or 1936, are chasing conditions which have long been superseded by the process of capitalist development. As against looking to such formal indicators as union membership, party votes or newspaper sales as indices of class struggle, rather look to strike figures, wildcats, sabotage and above all resistance to capitalism in all its forms.

III The Real movement
The expression "real movement" is used by a number of groups and individuals, among them Antagonism, Gilles Dauvé, and Aufheben. Red & Black Notes' use of the term is quoted above. While the phrase is found in Marx, is it used in the same way today, and if not how does it differ?

Marx and Engels' own use of the term "real movement" appears in The German Ideology. The book is part of a remarkable intellectual journey from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, through The Holy Family and The German Ideology to The Communist Manifesto. In their development from what might awkwardly be called a ‘left-Hegelian humanism' to communism, Marx and Engels were concerned to differentiate their doctrine from other socialist and communist theories. In particular they sought to establish that socialism was not simply a product of intellectual theories, but a logical deduction from premises apparent in capitalist society. While "utopian" socialists such as Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen, whatever their merits, saw socialism as a "good idea", Marx and Engels tried to prove that their politics and conclusions were rooted in the actual conditions of capitalism. As The Communist Manifesto noted: Capitalism produced its own gravedigger in the proletariat.

As against those like Louis Blanqui, who believed that a small conspiratorial group could carry out the revolution, or Ferdinand Lassalle who saw role for a progressive state, Marx argued, in the statement of aims of the International Workingmens' Association "the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves."

It seems clear that for Marx and Engels, the term ‘real movement' was both a recognition of the "seeds" of socialism present in capitalism that made its overthrow both a possibility and a necessity, and the movement of the class toward that self-actualization.

Have those ideas become less relevant today? In order to answer this question it is necessary to examine the ideas of Lenin. Lenin, it will be remembered, is the Russian social democrat who is, perhaps more than any other person, responsible for the course of twentieth century history. Among Lenin's contributions to revolutionary theory was that of the vanguard party, which was based on his concept of class consciousness.

Lenin believed that, the working class could not attain a "revolutionary consciousness" by itself. Rather, it would only be able to reach a "trade union consciousness." Revolutionary theory, without which there could not be a revolutionary movement, was the prerogative of intellectuals who would bring this to the working class. In all fairness to Lenin, this was hardly an original thought; it was the hallmark of the Marxism of German social democratic leader Karl Kautsky, who had in turn discovered it from Ferdinand Lassalle.

To a critical eye, Lenin's comments are in direct contradiction to Marx's third thesis on Feuerbach. There Marx wrote "that the educator needs to be educated and [that]. .. . the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as Revolutionary practice."

In other words, those who would "teach" the working class to be revolutionary merely divided society into two parts, the teacher and the student, and ignored that fact "the educator must himself be educated." As Marx argued it was through revolutionary praxis that the working class would acquire the ability to transform society and itself.

Of course, Marx and Engels died before Lenin wrote his celebrated text, and so their words cannot literally be taken as an indictment of his; nevertheless, Lenin's movement is much different than the one envisaged by his professed teachers. Latter-day Leninists also suffer from the tendency to reduce the class struggle to the manifestos and statements issued by their own little groups. A tendency amplified over the course of the twentieth century as Leninist groups have become more and more isolated from the class they aim to lead.

In direct contrast to this idea, Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her celebrated brochure Organization Questions of the Russian Social- Democracy that "historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee."

Yet, all of this begs the question of what exactly is the real movement? In the quote at the head of this article, Marx and Engels argue that the real movement is one which leads toward communism.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many socialists saw that movement in the official organizations of the class, the trade unions and the political parties. Yet even as these organizations grew, they were never able to encompass a majority of the class; moreover as they gained strength they displayed a marked conservatism and tendency to become assimilated into capitalist structures. This tendency became complete in the twentieth century. Henceforth it became impossible to speak of mass working class organizations. This is why many look toward such occurrences as mass strikes and wildcats which are often against the unions as the real movement of the class.

It would be worse than sectarian though, to draw a distinction between "real" struggle and "unreal" struggles, since there is no absolute barrier between them. One can become the other. And as Marx noted in The German Ideology, struggle in a necessary part of the transformation of the working class.

However, it is important to try to address the way in which struggle in often viewed, especially by the left. In the Red & Black Notes statement there is a distinction made between the ‘official' indices of the level of working class resistance, such as union membership or votes to social democracy, and actual resistance to capital. In my opinion, the "real movement" against capital can be seen in measures such as strike days, work stoppages, wildcats and so on. Actual resistance to the rule of capital, both official and unofficial.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail the ‘hidden transcript,' but I would say the following: Resistance to capital can be seen in various ways: Absenteeism (the so- called refusal of work); petty theft; sabotage; non- collection of fares on buses or reduction of prices in shops; For the organized leftist these actions do not exist. Yet, in some ways they constitute a guerilla struggle against capital in the same way that a strike can represent a full frontal attack.

And while most everyone would prefer large visible uprisings against capital, it must be recognized that this is not always the case. Almost every workplace, contains, even embryonically what might be called cultures of solidarity; identification with other workers simply because of the conditions of the workplace. True, capital moves to erode and break up these well springs of solidarity, but as they do so, the working class finds new ways to get around it. On this note, the article in the current issue of Collective Action Notes, "Fragile Prosperity, Fragile Peace" is highly recommended. (CAN #16-17, 2000).

The role of this magazine is not to judge which actions of the working class constitute the movement toward communism, as would numerous vanguardist groups. We end by concluding that the resistance to capital must be the prerogative of those who struggle against it.

Dave Elswith

January 2002

First published in Red & Black Notes #14, Janaury 2002, this article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.