Sunday, November 1, 2009

Not by bread alone





Wednesday, 28 October 2009

In 1846 Weitling complained that the “intellectuals” Marx and Engels wrote only about obscure matters of no interest to the workers. Marx angrily responded with the following words, “Ignorance never yet helped anybody.” Marx’s response is as valid today as it was then.

The publication of the series The Class Struggle in the Roman Republic has aroused considerable interest among the readers of Marxist.com. According to the information that has just been passed to me by the editorial staff, there has been a record number of individual visits to these articles, about 2,200 hits, which is significantly higher than the average number of visits per individual article.

Karl Marx and Friedrich EngelsThis fact confirms the correctness of the policy of Marxist.com, which has established a strong reputation for the quality of its theoretical articles. At a time when the ideas of Marxism are coming under attack from all sides, our website stands out for its firm and consistent defence of Marxist theory in all its manifold richness. It shows that many people all over the world are interested in theory and enthusiastic about deepening their knowledge of Marxism.

Marxist.com has its critics, however. Some of our critics complain because we write articles about ancient Rome in the middle of the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. In fairness to ourselves, Marxist.com has published a very great deal on the crisis, and will continue to do so. But we also have a duty to write about other matters, to raise the level of theoretical understanding of our readers, to provide a Marxist analysis, not just of economics but of history, science, art, music and every other sphere of human activity.

How do we answer those who demand that we narrow the scope of Marxism to fit into their limited mental schema? We do not have to answer them at all, because they were answered long ago by Lenin, who wrote: Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. That is a fundamental truth that all the great Marxists have insisted on. Let us remind ourselves of this elementary fact by a few significant examples.

No revolution without theory
Even before they wrote the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels (who, let us remember, began their revolutionary life as students of Hegelian philosophy) conducted a struggle against those “proletarian” leaders who worshipped backwardness and primitive methods of struggle and stubbornly resisted the introduction of scientific theory.

The Russian critic, Annenkov, who happened to be in Brussels during the spring of 1846, has left us a very curious report of one meeting at which a furious quarrel occurred between Marx and Weitling, the German utopian communist. At one point, Weitling, who was a worker, complained that the “intellectuals” Marx and Engels wrote about obscure matters of no interest to the workers. He accused Marx of writing “armchair analysis of doctrines far from the world of the suffering and afflicted people.” At this point, Marx, who was usually very patient, became indignant. Annenkov writes:

“At the last words Marx finally lost control of himself and thumped so hard with his fist on the table that the lamp on it rung and shook. He jumped up saying: ‘Ignorance never yet helped anybody.’" (Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, p.272, my emphasis, AW)

Weitling was opposed to theory and patient propagandistic work. Like Bakunin, he maintained that poor people were always ready to revolt. This advocate of “revolutionary action” as opposed to theory believed that as long as there were resolute leaders, a revolution could be engineered at any moment. We find echoes of these primitive pre-Marxist ideas even today in the ranks of the Marxists.

Marx understood that the communist movement could only advance by a radical break with these primitive notions and a thorough cleansing in the ranks. The break with Weitling was inevitable and came in May, 1846. Afterwards, Weitling left for America and ceased to play any noteworthy role. Only by breaking with the “worker-activist” Weitling was it possible to establish the Communist League on a sound basis. Yet the primitive tendency represented by Weitling constantly reproduces itself in the movement, first in the ideas of Bakunin, and later in the variegated forms of ultraleftism that still plagues the Marxist movement to this day.

In the Collected Works of Marx and Engels we find a real goldmine of ideas. Here we find Engels’ writings on the Peasant War in Germany, on the early history of the Germans, Slavs and Irish, his history of Early Christianity. In his article on the death of Engels, Lenin wrote:

“Marx worked on the analysis of the complex phenomena of capitalist economy. Engels, in simply written works, often of a polemical character, dealt with more general scientific problems and with diverse phenomena of the past and present in the spirit of the materialist conception of history and Marx’s economic theory.”

A brief list of Engels’ works immediately reveals the breadth of the man’s vision. We have his magnificent polemical work against Dühring, which deals in great depth with philosophy, natural science and the social sciences. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State deals with the earliest origins of human society. What has all this got to do with the working class and the class struggle, our “practical” critics will ask. Only this: that this was the work that laid down the basis for the Marxist theory of the state, which Lenin later developed in State and Revolution, the book that laid the theoretical foundations for the Bolshevik Revolution.

And what are we to say about Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German Classical Philosophy? In this book, Engels deals not only with the “abstract and abstruse” ideas of Hegel, but also with the ideas of obscure minor German philosophers of the Hegelian Left movement. Especially in the Correspondence of Marx and Engels we find a treasure trove of ideas with an astonishing sweep. The two friends exchanged views on all manner of subjects, not just economics and politics but philosophy, history, science, art, literature and culture.

Here is a crushing answer to all the bourgeois critics of Marx who present a caricature of Marxism as a dry, narrow doctrine, which reduces all human thought to economics and the development of the productive forces. Yet even today there are people who like to call themselves Marxists who defend, not the genuine ideas of Marx and Engels in all their richness, breadth and profundity, but the very same “economist” caricature of the bourgeois critics of Marxism. This is not Marxism at all but, to use Hegel’s expression, “die leblosen Knochen eines Skeletts” (the lifeless bones of a skeleton), on which Lenin commented: “What is necessary is not leblose Knochen, but living life.” (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Vol. 38)

Lenin and theory
Lenin always stressed the importance of theory. Even in the initial, embryonic phase of the Party, he conducted a pitiless struggle against the Economists, who had the narrow mentality of the “proletarian practico” and despised theory as the sphere of the intellectuals, not the workers. Answering this nonsense, Lenin wrote:

“Marx’s statement: ‘Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.’ To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day. Moreover, these words of Marx are taken from his letter on the Gotha Programme, in which he sharply condemns eclecticism in the formulation of principles. If you must unite, Marx wrote to the party leaders, then enter into agreements to satisfy the practical aims of the movement, but do not allow any bargaining over principles, do not make theoretical ‘concessions’. This was Marx’s idea, and yet there are people among us who seek in his name to belittle the significance of theory!

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity. Yet, for Russian Social-Democrats the importance of theory is enhanced by three other circumstances, which are often forgotten: first, by the fact that our Party is only in process of formation, its features are only just becoming defined, and it has as yet far from settled accounts with the other trends of revolutionary thought that threaten to divert the movement from the correct path.” (What is to be Done? Dogmatism and “Freedom of Criticism”)

The Economist trend, like Weitling and Bakunin, posed as a “genuine proletarian” tendency fighting against the pernicious influence of the “intellectual theoreticians.” A sharp break with this trend, which combined “proletarian” demagogy with reformist trade unionism in practice, was the prior condition for the formation of Bolshevism. But the struggle for theory, against the “practicos” was a constant feature long after that.

Lenin wrote in 1908:

“The ideological struggle waged by revolutionary Marxism against revisionism at the end of the nineteenth century is but the prelude to the great revolutionary battles of the proletariat, which is marching forward to the complete victory of its cause despite all the waverings and weaknesses of the petty bourgeoisie.” (Marxism and Revisionism)

In his book Stalin, Trotsky describes in great detail the psychology of the Bolshevik “committeemen”, who also had the “practico” mentality. They made a whole series of blunders because of their inability to understand the real movement of the workers in 1905-6. The reason for their errors (usually of an ultra-left character) was their lack of understanding of dialectics. They had a completely abstract and formalistic idea of Party Building, which was not related to the real movement of the workers. That is why in 1905, to Lenin’s horror, the Bolsheviks in Petersburg walked out of the first meeting of the Soviet, because it refused to accept the Party programme.

In 1908, when he found himself in a minority of one in the leadership of the Bolshevik faction, which was led by the ultra-lefts, Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, he was prepared to split away on the basis of a difference on Marxist philosophy. It is no accident that in this difficult time, when the very existence of the revolutionary tendency was in danger, he spent a lot of time writing a book on philosophy: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

One might ask what was Vladimir Ilyich doing writing books on such matters. What possible relevance can the study of the writings of Bishop Berkeley have to the Russian workers? One might also ask why Lenin thought it necessary to break with the Majority of the Bolshevik leaders on the question of philosophy. But Lenin understood very well the causal link between Bogdanov’s rejection of dialectical materialism and the ultra-left policies adopted by the Majority.

During the First World War, Lenin returned to philosophy, making a profound study of Hegel that was published many years later as the Philosophical Notebooks. One of his last works was On the Significance of Militant Materialism, in which he again stresses the need to study Hegel:

“Of course, this study, this interpretation, this propaganda of Hegelian dialectics is extremely difficult, and the first experiments in this direction will undoubtedly be accompanied by errors. But only he who never does anything never makes mistakes. Taking as our basis Marx’s method of applying materialistically conceived Hegelian dialectics, we can and should elaborate this dialectics from all aspects, print in the journal excerpts from Hegel’s principal works, interpret them materialistically and comment on them with the help of examples of the way Marx applied dialectics, as well as of examples of dialectics in the sphere of economic and political relations, which recent history, especially modern imperialist war and revolution, provides in unusual abundance.”

Read full text of Alan Woods' article here.

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