Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 3
The importance of Marxist theory

Again and again Lenin repeated that there cannot be a revolutionary party without revolutionary theory. Marxism is defined by Marx and Engels as scientific socialism. Science, whether physics, chemistry or Marxism, cannot be learnt by rote as a collection of slogans. It has to be studied seriously.

When Marx and Engels write that revolutionaries have to generalise the historical and international experience of the working class movement, this cannot be done except through study, through theory. One cannot know about the Paris Commune from one’s own experience. For that one has to read the books. Trotsky formulated the same idea in different words when he said the revolutionary party was the memory of the class, and the university of the class. At a university students study theory.

One has to learn the past in order to prepare for the future. Karl Radek, a leading Bolshevik, described in his memoirs of Lenin how in the middle of the stormy days of 1917 Lenin told him he should read a book on the French Revolution, as it would help him understand the tasks ahead. During this same period Lenin wrote one of his most important theoretical works, State and Revolution. St Just, at the time of the French Revolution, said, “Those who make half a revolution dig their own graves.”

All revolutions start as half revolutions. The new co-exists with the old. Thus the February 1917 revolution got rid of the Tsar, got rid of the police, established the soviets, workers’ committees in the factories – all this was new. But the old survived: the generals remained in the army, the capitalists continued to own the factories, the landlords the land, and the imperialist war continued.

When Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917, 10,000 workers and soldiers welcomed him at the Finland Station in Petrograd. The chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, the right wing Menshevik Chkheidze, greeted him with a big bouquet of flowers, and declared, “In the name of the victorious Russian Revolution you are welcomed.” Lenin pushed the bouquet aside, turned to the thousands of workers and soldiers and said, “What victorious Russian Revolution? We got rid of the Tsar! The French got rid of their king in 1792. The capitalists still own the factories, the landlords own the land, the imperialist war goes on. Down with the Provisional Government! Down with the war! Land, bread and peace! All power to the soviets!” One historian, Sukhanov, described the scene. One would have thought the thousands of workers and soldiers would have shouted, “Hoorah!” to Lenin. But they were completely dumbfounded. They were so excited by the end of Tsarism, the end of the police, that they could not under stand why anyone should criticise the set-up. The only voice heard in the silence was that of Goldenberg, an ex-member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. He shouted, “Lenin is mad! He’s completely mad!” Because Lenin understood the words of St Just very well, he went on to lead the revolution to its final victory.

Since 1917 there have been many revolutions that went only half way and therefore ended with a counter-revolution.

To give a few examples. In November 1918 the revolution in Germany got rid of the Kaiser and established workers’ councils, soviets, in Germany. Alas, the generals remained, the factory owners remained. In 1919 army officers murdered Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and other Communists. And many years later the Nazis came to power in Germany.

In 1979 mass strikes culminated in a general strike led by workers’ councils (shoras) and overthrew the Shah of Iran. The leadership of the workers were the Communist Party (Tudeh) and the Fedayeen, both followers of Moscow. They argued for unity of the Iranian people and all Muslims. They compromised with Ayatollah Khomeini and he repaid them with a massacre.

The third example is Indonesia. In the early 1960s the Indonesian Communist Party had 3 million members, far more than the Bolsheviks had in 1917 (quarter of a million). There were also 10 mil lion in organisations associated with the Indonesian Communist Party. But the leadership, being Stalinist, argued for the unity of the Indonesian nation and all Muslims. They supported the bourgeois nationalist president of Indonesia, Sukarno. In 1966 a subordinate of General Sukarno, General Suharto, made a coup which led to the massacre of between a 500,000 and 1 million Communists.

We have to learn from the past to prepare for the future. We have to study Marxist economics so that we understand the contradictions in the capitalist system, the forces that lead to explosions in it.

To lead is to foresee. In order to foresee one must have a clear theoretical understanding of the economy, society, politics, history, philosophy.

It is not good enough for a minority of party members to know the theory. Everybody should know it. Lenin wrote that in a revolutionary party there is no rank and file, therefore everybody must have a knowledge of Marxism. The revolutionary party is not a copy of a capitalist factory or the capitalist army. In the factory the managers decide and the workers have to obey. In the capitalist army the officers command and the soldiers stand to attention. In a revolutionary party every member has the power of thinking, deciding and acting.

Of course in practice there is unevenness in the level of consciousness and of knowledge of theory inside a revolutionary organisation. But this unevenness has to be levelled up. The worst damage that can be done inside a revolutionary party is if there is an attack on the intellectuals inside the party, in the name of a proletarian attitude. As a matter of fact such an attack is not so much on the in tellectuals but on the workers in the party. It is an insult to the workers as it assumes the workers are unable to grasp theory. Why do you think Marx spent 26 years of his life writing Das Kapital? As a matter of fact he never finished the book. Only Volume 1 was published in his lifetime. Volumes 2 and 3 were edited by Engels after Marx’s death. Why do you think the Marxists in Russia organised evening classes for workers in the 1890s, teaching them Marxism?

One of the best books in defence of the role of the intellectuals in a revolutionary party is Lenin’s What is to be Done? written in 1902. His opponents, whom he called economists, thought workers were unable to go beyond trade union consciousness, beyond the demand for money or a shorter working week.

Again, it was the Italian revolutionary Marxist Gramsci who wrote about the need to create worker intellectuals.

It was the right wing in the German Social Democratic Party who attacked Rosa Luxemburg: she was too intellectual for them. Probably they didn’t like the fact that she was non-German (being Polish) and a woman. Similarly in 1923 when Lenin was on his deathbed Stalin attacked Trotsky as an intellectual, and later condemned him as “cosmopolitan”, that is, hinting that he was a Jew.

Underestimating the significance of theory in a revolutionary party is basically an insult to workers, assuming they are unable to grasp ideas and are uninterested in them.

Reading Marxist literature and listening to Marxist lectures is not enough to make members of a revolutionary party grasp Marxist theory. One must have a close periphery to the party members. When Lenin says everyone in a revolutionary party is a leader it means every member must give a lead to workers outside the party. If, say, a member of the SWP relates to a couple of people in his workplace, neighbourhood or school he’s in, these people will pose questions he will have to answer.

To give one example, one might say, “You call for revolution, but look, the Russian Revolution led to tyranny. Why should we support revolution?” If the party member can explain what happened to Russia after the revolution, like the defeat of the German Revolution that led to the isolation of Russia, that led to the degeneration of the regime, to the rise of Stalin who became the gravedigger of the revolution and the builder of state capitalism, then the party member has a clear grasp of the theory. The dialogue with non-party people will make clear to him what he knows, and more important, what he does not know and should learn.

The heart of Marxism is dialectics, the dialogue between members and non-members. How can the individual party members get people arguing with them? The key is selling the revolutionary paper, not only on demonstrations or in the streets, but in the routine of selling to a few individuals in the workplace, the neighbourhood or school, so that the seller knows the individuals and has discussions with them over time.

Lenin wrote that the revolutionary paper is the organiser of the party. How does it organise? Not only internally, by organising the selling of the paper and collecting money for it, but also by getting the members to organise the periphery. In the SWP we take it for granted that besides the sale on demonstrations, in the streets or at mass meetings, the routine sale of individual party members to their periphery is of the greatest significance. An organisation that has no significant periphery is not a revolutionary organisation but a passive sect that is bound to wither away. “Revolutionaries” without a periphery are like fish out of water.


Last updated on 11.12.2002