V. I.   Lenin

Liberal and Marxist Conceptions of the Class Struggle


Published: Prosveshcheniye No. 5, May 1913. Signed: V. Ilyin. Published according to the Prosveshcheniye text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 119-124.
Translated: The Late George Hanna
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.README

A. Yermansky, a liquidator, poured down an amazing abundance of angry words in Nasha Zarya on my criticism of his (and Gushka’s) point of view on the question of the political role of the big commercial and industrial bourgeoisie (Prosveshcheniye Nos. 5–7).[1]

Mr. Yermansky, with his vituperation and recollections of old “insults” (including the “insult” to Mr. Dan & Co., who tried, unsuccessfully, to split the St. Petersburg Social-Democratic organisation in 1907), tries to conceal the real substance of the issue.

We shall, however, not permit Mr. Yermansky to conceal the substance of the present dispute by recalling undeserved insults to and defeats of the liquidators. For the present dispute concerns a very important question of principle that comes up again and again for a thousand different reasons.

To be precise, it is the question of the liberal falsification of Marxism, the substitution of a Marxist, revolutionary conception of the class struggle by a liberal conception. We shall never tire of explaining this ideological basis of all the disputes between the Marxists and the liquidators.

Mr. A. Yermansky writes:

The ‘Marxist’ Ilyin refuses to recognise, in the activities of industrial organisations, the class struggle ‘on a nation-wide (and partly even international) scale’ as I [Yermansky] described them in my article. Why? Because of the ‘absence’ here ‘of the fundamental feature of the nation-wide or state-wide—the organisation of state power’”...(Nasha Zarya, p. 55).

Here is an exposition of the substance of the question given by Mr. Yermansky himself, who does everything possible and impossible to evade that substance! No matter how he may accuse me of distorting his views and of all the mortal sins, no matter how he twists and turns, even seeking refuge in recollections of the 1907 split, the truth will out.

My thesis, therefore, is clear—the basic feature of the nation-wide is the organisation of state power.

You do not share that view, my angry opponent? You do not think this the only Marxist view?

Then why not say so straight out? Why not counterpose a correct view to an incorrect one? If the view that the fundamental feature of the nation-wide is the organisation of state power is, in your opinion, only Marxism in inverted commas, why do you not refute my error and expound your understanding of Marxism clearly, precisely and without evasion?

The answer to these questions will be clear to the reader if we quote the passage from Mr. A. Yermansky which followed immediately after the one quoted above:

Ilyin wants the big Russian bourgeoisie to carry on their class struggle in a different way, he wants them to try to bring about a change in the entire state system. Ilyin wants, the bourgeoisie do not want—and the one at fault, of course, is Yermansky the ‘liquidator’, who ‘substitutes the liberal conception of the class struggle for the conception of the class struggle in the Marxist sense’.”

Here you have Mr. Yermansky’s tirade in full and it will enable you to get a picture of the evasive liquidator caught in the act.

The evasion is obvious.

Have I or have I not indicated correctly the “fundamental feature” of the nation-wide?

Mr. A. Yermansky himself was forced to admit that I indicated precisely the substance of the matter.

And Mr. Yermansky evades an answer, realising that he has been caught!

And having been caught in the act, Mr. Yermansky evades the question of the correctness or incorrectness of the fundamental feature I indicated and jumps over this question to the question of what Ilyin and the bourgeoisie “want”.   But no matter how bold, how daring Mr. Yermansky’s leaps, they do not disguise the fact that he has been caught.

What have “wants” got to do with it, my dear opponent, when the dispute concerns the concept of the class struggle?! You had to admit that I accused you of substituting a liberal for a Marxist conception, and that I indicated the “fundamental feature” of the Marxist conception as including the organisation of state power in the idea of a nation-wide class struggle.

Mr. A. Yermansky is such a clumsy polemicist, even if an angry one, that he gave a clear explanation, by his own example, of the connection between liquidationism in general and his own, Yermansky’s, mistakes in particular and the liberal conception of the class struggle!

The question of the class struggle is one of the fundamental questions of Marxism. It is, therefore, worth while dealing with the concept of class struggle in greater detail.

Every class struggle is a political struggle.[2] We know that the opportunists, slaves to the ideas of liberalism, understood these profound words of Marx incorrectly and tried to put a distorted interpretation on them. Among the opportunists there were, for instance, the Economists, the elder brothers of the liquidators. The Economists believed that any clash between classes was a political struggle. The Economists therefore recognised as “class struggle” the struggle for a wage increase of five kopeks on the ruble, and refused to recognise a higher, more developed, nation-wide class struggle, the struggle for political aims. The Economists, therefore, recognised the embryonic class struggle but did not recognise it in its developed form. The Economists recognised, in other words, only that part of the class struggle that was more tolerable to the liberal bourgeoisie, they refused to go farther than the liberals, they refused to recognise the higher form of class struggle that is unacceptable to the liberals. By so doing, the Economists became liberal workers’ politicians. By so doing, the Economists rejected the Marxist, revolutionary conception of the class struggle.

To continue. It is not enough that the class struggle be comes real, consistent and developed only when it embraces the sphere of politics. In politics, too, it is possible to restrict oneself to minor matters, and it is possible to go   deeper, to the very foundations. Marxism recognises a class struggle as fully developed, “nation-wide”, only if it does not merely embrace politics but takes in the most significant thing in politics—the organisation of state power.

On the other hand, the liberals, when the working-class movement has grown a little stronger, dare not deny the class struggle but attempt to narrow down, to curtail and emasculate the concept of class struggle. Liberals are prepared to recognise the class struggle in the sphere of politics, too, but on one condition—that the organisation of state power should not enter into that sphere. It is not hard to under stand which of the bourgeoisie’s class interests give rise to the liberal distortion of the concept of class struggle.

Now, when Mr. Yermansky rehashed the work of the moderate and punctilious civil servant Gushka, when he expressed solidarity with him, not noticing (or not wishing to see?) the liberal emasculation of the concept of class struggle, I pointed out to Mr. Yermansky his chief sin against theory and general principles. Mr. Yermansky grew angry and began to use bad language and to twist and turn, being unable to refute what I had said.

In doing so, Mr. A. Yermansky proved such a clumsy polemicist that he exposed himself with particular clarity! “Ilyin wants, the bourgeoisie do not want,” he writes. We now know what particular features of the point of view of the proletariat (Marxism) and of the bourgeoisie (liberalism) give rise to these different “wants”.

The bourgeoisie “want” to curtail the class struggle, to distort and narrow the conception and blunt its sharp edge. The proletariat “wants” this deception exposed. The Marxist wants whoever undertakes to speak of the class struggle of the bourgeoisie in the name of Marxism to expose the narrowness, the selfish narrowness, indeed, of the bourgeois conception of the class struggle, and not merely to quote figures, not merely to go into ecstasies over “big” figures. The liberal “wants” to appraise the bourgeoisie and its class struggle in such a way as to conceal its narrowness, to conceal the failure to include in the struggle that which is “basic” and most important.

Mr. A. Yermansky was caught out in discussing in liberal fashion the interesting, but ideologically empty or slavishly   compiled figures of Mr. Gushka. Obviously, when this was revealed, there was nothing left for Mr. A. Yermansky to do but curse and wriggle.

Let us continue the passage from Mr. A. Yermansky’s article where we left off:

It is clear that, in fact, Ilyin is the only person who is replacing a study of the real state of affairs by his own qualifications, and also [!!] by a stereotyped pattern based on schoolboy models drawn from the history of the great French Revolution.”

Mr. A. Yermansky has got into such a tangle that he be comes ever more ruthless in “destroying” himself! He does not notice the extent to which his liberalism is revealed by this angry sally against the “stereotypes” of the great French Revolution!

My dear Mr. Yermansky, you must understand (no matter how difficult it may be for a liquidator to understand) that it is impossible “to study the real state of affairs” without qualifying it, without appraising it from the Marxist, or the liberal, or the reactionary, etc., point of view!

You, Mr. Yermansky, qualified and still qualify the “study” of the good civil servant Gushka in liberal fashion and I qualify it in Marxist fashion. That is what is at the bottom of it all. By leaving your critical analysis on the threshold of the question of the organisation of state power, you thereby proved the liberal limitations of your conception of the class struggle.

Which was to be shown!

Your sally against the “stereotype” of the great French Revolution gives you away completely. Anybody can understand that a stereotype or a French model has nothing to do with the matter—for instance, there were not and could not have been strikes, especially political strikes at that time, under “stereotype and model” conditions.

The fact of the matter is that when you became a liquidator you forgot how to apply the revolutionary point of view to an appraisal of social events. That is where the trouble lies. Marx certainly did not limit his thinking to “stereotypes and models” taken from the end of the eighteenth century, but the point of view he adopted was always revolutionary, he always appraised (“qualified” if you prefer that   “learned” word, my dear Mr. Yermansky!) the class struggle most profoundly, always revealing whether it affected “fundamentals”, always mercilessly berating any timidity of thought, any concealment of underdeveloped, emasculated, selfishly distorted class struggle.

The class struggle at the end of the eighteenth century showed us how it can become political, how it can develop to really “nation-wide” forms. Since then capitalism and the proletariat have developed to a gigantic extent. The “models” of the old do not prevent, for instance, the study of the new forms of struggle that I have, in part, outlined above.

The point of view of the Marxist, however, will always require a profound and not a superficial “appraisal”, will always expose the poverty of liberal distortions, understatements and cowardly concealment.

Let us congratulate Mr. Yermansky on his devoted and splendid explanation of the way in which the liquidators substitute a liberal conception of the class struggle for the Marxist conception, forgetting how to examine social events from the revolutionary point of view.


[1] See present edition Vol. 18 pp. 56–72.—Ed.

[2] See K. Marx and F. Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1955, p. 42.

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