MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Pocket Battleship

When the German social democratic party campaigned for election to the Reichstag in May 1928 its candidates solemnly swore that they would oppose the construction of an armored cruiser, Pocket Battleship A, which had been approved by the outgoing Reichstag. But when the Social Democrats not only got the highest vote in the election (over nine million) but also became the dominant element in the coalition government headed by Hermann Mueller; the leaders of the party found that they could not resist the pressure of their capitalist partners in the coalition and they announced that they would proceed with the construction of the cruiser. Communist Party leaders then announced in the Reichstag that in response to popular demand they were going to collect signatures to a petition for the enactment of a "law forbidding the construction of armored cruisers and other warships." Although many Social Democrats were opposed to their leaders' betrayal of their campaign pledges, the CP petition campaign was a failure, collecting only 1,200,000 names, which was two million less than the CP voting members.



Sympathizers of the kulaks during the early collectivisation period.


Political Economy

A branch of science concerned with the production of commodities and the accumulation of wealth.

‘Political Economy’ was used prior to the 20th century, (when the term ‘Economics’ supplanted it); for its earliest exponents such as William Petty and Adam Smith, Political Economy was a branch of Ethics. With the growth of positivism in the 19th century, however, Political Economy, like Sociology, came to be seen as a branch of science.

The British pioneers of Political Economy contributed much to the development of Hegel's views in that they showed the relation between human thinking and social relations and how these social relations developed through specific historical stages related to the progress of techniques of production.

After the completion of his earliest investigations, Marx concentrated the majority of his theoretical work on the critique of political economy because Marx saw that the work of the political economists most clearly exhibited the ideological forms which dominated bourgeois society: explaining the science of economics through the perspective of the large and small scale capitalist, not through the perspective of the working class.

Bourgeois ideology reifies human activity into separate branches of science, philosophy and so on, whereas for Marxism, it is essential to understand human life as a whole. Marx explained the relation between political economy and ethics:

“It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick - ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. ... the opposition between political economy and ethics is only an apparent opposition and just as much no opposition as it is an opposition. All that happens is that political economy expresses moral laws in its own way”.

The point is that political economy does not describe immutable laws that govern humanity, or rather they only appear so, so long as people continue to participate in the forms of production, distribution and exchange on which they are based.

Karl Marx
Need, production and division of labor

Political Party

A Party is an organisation aspiring to administer public political power on behalf of a social class (even though it may enjoy support in only a part of that class).

Any social formation, be it a pressure group, social movement, trade union, political party or whatever, in one way or another reflects the interests of specific social strata. For example, as Engels puts it in his On the History of the Communist League:

... economic facts, ... are, at least in the modern world, a decisive historical force; ... they form the basis of the origination of the present-day class antagonisms; ... these class antagonisms, in the countries where they have become fully developed, thanks to large-scale industry, ... are in their turn the basis of the formation of political parties and of party struggles, and thus of all political history.”

However, political parties, bear a very specific relation to social classes because a political party is either the government party, or a “government-in-waiting”, and a government, by administering a state, either overtly defends the interest of the ruling social class (even if specifically defending interests of a sub-class), or seeks to replace it with that of another class. A party which does not aspire to administer public political power, is not really a party at all.

Some important qualifications are necessary however.

No social class is homogeneous, and the ruling class in any epoch must be especially heterogeneous and the balance of forces and interest between sections of the dominant class are always shifting under the impact of changes in the social division of labour. Consequently, a political party may also reflect the standpoint of a sub-class in its composition and/or program. There is always going on a struggle of social interests in which the state and the various branches of government are arenas of struggle. In most of the developed capitalist countries, the political parties reflect the outlook and interests of different strata of the ruling, bourgeois class.

In different countries and at different times, quite different forms of government operate, and consequently, a “political party” takes on quite a different form: in one case, an illegal organisation with its own army and a whole rival infrastructure, in another case, a vote-gathering organisation registered for elections.

If we say that a political party represents a social class, such as the proletariat, then if must be understood that such a party may emerge only slowly over decades, even centuries. At any point along the road, it may bear no resemblance to anything recognisable as a “political party”. In the case of the working class, the proletarian party (often referred to in Marxist literature as “the communist party” without meaning to refer to any particular party which might have such a name) is only fully developed at that very historical moment (some socialist society of the future) when it disappears into the general organsiation of social life of society generally. (See Zinoviev's History of the Bolshevik Party.)

4. Communists aim to abolish rather than simply conquer political power, something made clear in the Communist Manifesto:

“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”

In 1848, when Marx and Engels composed the Communist Manifesto as the Program for “the communist party”, nothing even vaguely resembling such a Party existed! The working class had begun to develop consciousness and had begun to intervene in the political arena; forseeing the coming upheavals of 1848, Marx and Engels composed the Manifesto to orient “this organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently, into a political party.”.

Their conception of “the communist party”, is illustrated in these words:

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” Communist Manifesto, Ch. 2

The withering criticism to which Marx subjected various projects towards building working class parties, such as Critique of the Gotha Program, make it clear that the above words should not be interpreted as meaning that Marx was “uncritical” in relation to either his own party or other working class parties, but rather that he saw “the communist party” as something which could not stand higher than the political development of the working class itself, and would take a long time to develop its unity and its program.

“Communism now no longer meant the concoction, by means of the imagination, of an ideal society as perfect as possible, but insight into the nature, the conditions and the consequent general aims of the struggle waged by the proletariat.” [On the History of the Communist League]

Associated with the Marxist notion of Political Party, is the question of a specifically Marxist method of organisation. Marx's writings make it clear that he advocated no special set of organisational rules at all, but rather his organisational work was conducted within the workers’ movement and reflected the same broad principles which characterise working class organisation everywhere: “openness in discussion, unity in action”. Lenin gave this simple idea a name: democratic centralism, but nothing more should be read into the meaning of this term than the same universal principles of working class organisation, as applied in Lenin's own times. Consensus decision-making has essentially the same meaning. See the MEIA Subject Index on Organisation.

A lot of mythology circulates in relation to a supposedly Marxist theory of the Party. This glossary is not the place to investigate misunderstandings, but the following works are recommended: Conclusion to Lenin’s ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, Trotsky’s Groups and Factional Formations from The New Course, and Hal Draper’s The Myth of Lenin's ‘Concept of The Party’


Political Terrain

Political terrain is the broader social context (by analogy: terrain, or landscape) of political struggle, which constrains what can and cannot be said or done, but offers a variety of possible different paths.

In every society, at a certain stage of historical development, in one or another part of the world, politics is fought out under conditions and in a way which is peculiar to that society. Some kinds of activity, some options are entirely closed and those advocating such a thing or presenting their ideas in such a way will remain marginalised.

For example, in Europe of the 1930s class lines were very sharply drawn and politics was fought out at big street meetings and rallies between political parties with large active memberships, each with their own social clubs, their own uniforms, their own armed militia, contesting political power on the streets, in the armed forces and in parliament.

Imagine staging a environmentalist “media event” or putting up a peaceful blockade of 50 students outside the Nazi Party Conference in 1931. On the other hand, imagine standing on a soap box in Berlin today and calling for the formation of a workers’ militia. In either case, the political move which would have been quite appropriate in the one context is absurd in the other.

In both 1931 or 2001, the political terrain allowed for the expression of both communist and fascist politics, but what could be said and done in any sort of politics is sharply different. Political sense means to be able to see the political terrain of one’s own times, and know which roads are open and which roads are closed.

Marxists need to understand, not only the political terrain, but the material basis for the given political terrain, and be sensitive to changes in the terrain, and to be able to uncover the inner contradictions within the political terrain.

Marx’s comment on the 16th century revolutionary Thomas Münzer were prophetic:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.... ” [Peasant Wars in Germany]

The political terrain may provide an opening for revolution, but fail to provide conditions for achievement of the goals of revolution.

The concept of political terrain is close to the Hegelian concept of Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the times”, which Hegel describes in extreme terms as follows:

“In the course of this work of the world mind, states, nations, and individuals arise animated by their particular determinate principle which has its interpretation and actuality in their constitutions and in the whole range of their life and condition. While their consciousness is limited to these and they are absorbed in their mundane interests, they are all the time the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind at work within them. The shapes which they take pass away, while the absolute mind prepares and works out its transition to its next higher stage. [Philosophy of Right]

and Marx expresses the same basic idea when he describes how revolutionaries often borrow their slogans and images from the past:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. ...

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue. [Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte]


Political Revolution

A political revolution is the forcible overthrow of the ruling political caste by a mass movement which does not aim to overthrow the underlying relations of production or smash the state.The term is used particularly in relation to the Soviet Union, and was the policy of the Trotskyist movement from 1933. The political revolution was to throw out the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore proletarian democracy.

Although the political revolution never eventuated, in Eastern Europe after the occupation by the Red Army the political revolution was alive. In Czechoslovakia open protests against the regime took place in May 1953. Widespread strikes culminated in demonstrations and disorder in Plzen, but the movement was suppressed and subsided. In East Germany in June/July 1953 there was a spontaneous but disciplined workers’ protest primarily aimed against the regime’s new system of increased work quotas, and for free elections and the liberation of political prisoners. In June 1956 there was a vast uprising of workers in Poland which was only held back when the Soviet leaders flew in and negotiated with the leadership, replaced the leadership of the Polish government and made some concessions. In Hungary, in October 1956 there was a full-scale working class uprising which took power and held it until the Red Army invaded and suppressed the uprising.

All these movements had a working-class character; in some cases they received support from the intelligentsia, but the demands and the mass of the participants were communist workers. There demands were consistent with the program of political revolution. Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU was in part a response to this movement.

After the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Uprising, the political revolution waned. Khrushchev opened a small window of liberalisation which encouraged the intelligentsia to look towards reform of the existing regime rather than political revolution, while improvements in living standards undermined the determination of the working class.

A revolt by students in Warsaw in January 1968 which identified itself with the demands of 1956, called for an end to censorship, decentralising of the economy and academic liberty but was not supported by the working class, and was easily suppressed.

In 1968, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, under Alexander Dubcek, adopted a liberal policy, pre-figuring the later reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, but the working class was relatively passive when the Soviet tanks moved in to suppress the Prague Spring, as it was called.

Some time between 1956 and 1968 the political revolution had died. The huge movement that broke out in Europe in 1989 called not for political revolution but for the restoration of capitalism, counter-revolution.



Politics is activity oriented towards changing the consciousness of the community as opposed to being simply absorbed in the practical activity of the community. Politics is of ancient origin, the English word deriving from the Greek polis, and the first European work of political science was Plato’s Republic, though the science of politics was studied much earlier by Confucius.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, made the first classification of different sorts of constitutions and states and advocated that politicians should apply ethical theory to promote happiness (eudaimonia), an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.

In feudal society, for the mass of the population, there was no real distinction between politics and labour, as the political world encompassed the whole society and a person’s role in the social division of labour was identical with their position in the political order. Politics was for the ruling class, on the other hand, their given role in society. In feudal times therefore, politics was identical with statecraft, or the art of government. The first work in this stage of development of political science was Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which Machiavelli sought to formulate rules governing the practice of good government. In China, Confucius had developed principles of social practice in the same vein. The central value for Machiavelli and Confucius was stability. For Machiavelli, stability overroad other moral or ethical considerations in the actions of a prince.

With the emergence of bourgeois society, and the need to develop ethical and political sense for action lying outside the state and the family as such, politics and its science began a new phase of development. Thomas Hobbes saw the state as essential for avoiding the descent of bourgeois society into a “war of all against all”; John Locke developed the theory of parliamentary democracy in Britain; Rousseau developed his concept of “social contract” to prevent the rise of despotism; Hegel develop his Philosophy of Right in what Marx called a “society of mutual reconciliation”, presided over by a constitutional monarchy; and Thomas Paine argued for The Rights of Man.

For a collection of works on the development of political science, see Classics in Political Science.

During the epoch of modernity, the chief instrument of political struggle has been the political party, in which social interests are given an organisational and therefore political form. (Something hardly possible when the line of succession determines who will be King.) The rise of social movements in the middle of the twentieth century marked a change in the political terrain, in which people sought to rectify social ills by pressure on government, but without actually challenging for government. The Women’s Liberation Movement introduced the concept of personal politics, by which is meant the exercise of domination by means of interpersonal relations, rather than through the state.

In the postmodern period, increasing scepticism in the capacity of government or state as locations of effective power in the face of globalisation, has led the demobilisation of political parties and even social movements, and an emphasis on autonomy at the expense of community, a tendency which has been met by the promotion of ethical politics and ethical universalism.

The aim of communism is to restore politics (i.e., discussion, debate, consensus decision-making, voting, etc.) as integral part of social life by supplanting private labour and the mutually alienating relation of exchange of services with participatory, proletarian democracy at every level of society, that is, to break down the mutual separation of politics and labour, the existence of separate working and political (bureaucracy) classes, the separation of the practical and the theoretical attitudes.




Russian unit of weight (called a pud in Russian):

1 pood = 16.38 kilograms
1 pood = 40 funt

Popular Front (aka People’s Front)

The Popular Front or “Peoples Front” was a right wing response by the Communist International to the failures of the so-called “Third Period” (1928-1935), during which the Comintern embarked on an insurrectionary and ultra-left response to the world-wide capitalist depression (in the Comintern’s eyes, the “Third Period” of capitalist decline).

This culmination of this line was the failure of the German Communist Party, then the largest Communist Party outside of Russia, to effectively combat the rise of and eventual victory, of the German Nazis. It was a period marked by sectarianism and adventurism. Around the world, Communist activists split unions to set up pure “red unions” in opposition to the established union movement, regardless of how isolated or small Communist influence among workers was. Additionally, any work with non-Communist workers was forbidden or discouraged, effectively destroying the ability of the class to unite against their common fascist enemy.

In response, Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian leader of the Comintern, at the 1935 7th World Congress of the Communist International, proposed in a speech entitled The Unity of the Working Class against Fascism a turn away from this adventurism which was formerly known as the “United Front Against Fascism” but was more commonly referred to as the Popular Front.

Whereas before this date, the Comintern’s sections regarded socialists and anarchist organizations as “social-fascists”, unity in action against fascism with them became the order of the day. However, this unity “against fascism” was also a unity with what Dimitrov, and Stalin, argued for as the “progressive” bourgeoisie. Thus this action, almost always manifested in an electoralist campaign with these “progressive” and anti-fascist capitalist political parties, meant forming such “People’s Fronts” at all costs, including subordinating the political independence of the working class parties to this unity.

Because such unity was the point of the Popular Front, anything that would go beyond the confines of the agreement to fight fascism, had to be opposed and suppressed. The Comintern argued that “first we fight the fascists, then we fight for the socialist revolution.” This stagist approach inevitably meant that the Communist Parties had to act as brakes on mobilizations during this period.

Popular front governments were elected in France and Spain 1936 on a capitalist “anti-Fascist” program. But due to the tremendous radicalization by the working class that resulted in the bringing to power of the Popular Front governments, the workers wanted to go beyond the limited program of the Popular Front. In France, factory occupations occurred in response to Fascist attacks on workers. Workers responded in a pre-insurrectionary way with action committees forming at the biggest plants in France. The Stalinist French Communist Party due to its control of the largest union in France, successfully demobilized and sabotaged these actions, thus defusing a pre-revolutionary situation, leading to the establishment of a right wing government.

In Spain, a Popular Front government was also elected. The effects of a Fascist “pronunciamento” or coup attempt by Francisco Franco in July of 1936 resulted in a stunning set back for the Fascists, brought about by the workers, independently of the government, smashing the Fascist rebellion in half of Spain. The Stalinists in Spain were a small minority in the workers’ movement, and in Catalonia, the workers, lead by Anarchists and dissident communists, quickly established democratic control throughout this industrialized region of the Spanish state.

The Stalinists then went on a war path trying to destroy this workers revolution. With war raging in the west of Spain, the Stalinists used the excuse of the Popular Front to argue that now was “not the time for revolution”, that only the fight against Franco’s Fascist legions was permissible. Most of the working class disagreed, instead taking on the local capitalists, most of whom were sympathetic to Franco, expropriating their holdings and collectivizing the land was the only way to fight fascism.

Because the Stalinists controlled the oppressive apparatus of the Spanish state they attacked the Anarchists, dissident communists and left-socialists, imprisoned some of their members and murdered others ... all in the name of Popular Front.

The Stalinist government of Russia aided their fellow Stalinists in both France and Spain and in other countries, in protecting the capitalist integrity of the People’s Front by using the KGB/GPU secret police to go after those on the left that would oppose the policies of the Front.

The Popular Fronts in essence meant the subordination of workers’ parties to the capitalist political system. It meant the demobilization of workers who naturally radicalized when they say members of their own organizations in government and expected them to defend their interests, up to and including smashing capitalism and building a workers state. The ultimate failure of the Popular Fronts of the 1930s did not, however, mean the ending of the policies of the Popular Fronts.

To this day, the Popular Front takes similar forms, always subordinating the interests of the workers to the alliance of socialist, Communist and capitalist parties.

Subimitted by:
David Walters, January 2002


Positive knowledge

Knowledge which affirms something, rather than denying (or negating or disproving) something. Usually associated with the "positive sciences" which accumulate positive knowledge about the objective world.

Further Reading: Hegel on positive knowledge


Positive & Negative

Positive and Negative may be used simply in the sense of polarity, in which case neither has any meaning other than in relation to the other. However, Positive and Negative are used in philosophy with quite distinct meanings: Positive knowledge is knowledge which affirms something, rather than denying (or negating) something or disproving something. In this sense we talk of something being “posited”, and the "positive sciences" which accumulate "positive knowledge" about the objective world. Negation on the other hand means rejecting what is immediately given as true in favour of what is possible or the ‘meaning’ of something. Dialectics is sometimes said to be negative in that its action destroys the immediately given certain of facts and ‘turns things into their opposites’.

Further Reading: negation and Hegel on Positive knowledge and on Polarity.



Positivism refers to those tendencies in philosophy, particularly epistemology, which place science, especially natural science, in pride of place, adopting the methods of science as a model for all theoretical and practical activity.

The term can have quite different meanings however, according to the particular historical stage in development of the natural sciences a writer associates with positivism. Positivism is generally understood as having three distinct stages, associated with the name of Auguste Comte, Ernst Mach and finally Carnap, the Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism.

The First Positivism was initiated by Auguste Comte, who coined the word “positivism,” and is associated with the notion of Progress, such as in Comte’s description of the development of humanity from “a Theological stage, in which free play is given to spontaneous fictions admitting of no proof; the Metaphysical stage, characterised by the prevalence of personified abstractions or entities; lastly, the Positive stage, based upon an exact view of the real facts of the case.” [from A General View of Positivism by Auguste Comte]. For Comte, society and history were governed by Laws, and once the sciences had developed sufficiently, it would become possible to understand these laws, and social and historical development could be subject to scientific management. Other exponents of the first Positivism were E. Littré and P. Laffitte in France, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer in England. Each of these writers aimed at developing a Sociology as the pinnacle of science. The classical Political Economists were part of the First Positivism.

The Second Positivism emerged in the 1860s and ’70s and Ernst Mach is widely recognised as its foremost exponent, though Avenarius, Poincaré andd others also made significant contributions. These writers were motivated by problems which had begun to emerge in physics, ultimately leading to the Quantum/Relativity revolution in 1905 (both Mach and Poincaré are sometimes credited with antipating Einstein’s solution to these problems, and Einstein himself credited Mach with providing inspiration, but this is questionable), the failure of Sociology to achieve the anticipated rigour of the natural sciences, and the “marginal revolution” in Economics, which overthrew the objectivist standpoint of the Political Economists, replacing it with a subjectivist understanding of value and price.

It was this Second Positivism which was criticised by Lenin in his famous Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. There is no doubt that the second positivism and the scientists who were influenced by it, gained important insights by giving more weight to the subjective point of view, as opposed to the one-sided, or “mechanicalmaterialism of earlier natural science. However, with Mach, for example, epistemology had reached the point of the very denial of the existence of a knowable material world beyond sensation, and adopting the standpoint of an extreme psychologism. In this sense, the Seocnd Positivism is reminiscent in many ways of the most extreme forms of Post-structuralism of the people like Foucault in the late twentieth century. Sociologists and historians of the Second Positivism would reject the idea of any ‘meaning,’ lawfulness or ‘essential development’ in history, restricting science to the study of appearances. Max Weber emphasised that history was always told and investigated from a specific point of view and with different aims. Thus in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he shows how the rise of capitalism can be attributed to developments in Christian theology just as much as to economic and technical development. This kind of scepticism nevertheless contributed to the critique of overly simplistic or mecahnical conceptions of history, common among many nineteenth century thinkers.

The Third Positivism, or “neo-positivism,” is linked up with the activity of the Vienna Circle (O. Neurath, Carnap, Schlick, Frank and others) and of the Berlin Society for Scientific Philosophy (Reichenbach and others), which combined a number of trends: logical atomism, logical positivism and semantics.

The main place in the third positivism is taken by the philosophical problems of language, symbolic logic, the structure of scientific investigations, and others. The Third Positivism renounced psychologism of Mach &Co., but instead sought a solution to epistemological problems in formal logic and mathematics.

Generally speaking, the Third Positivism was superseded by Percy Bridgman’s Operationalism and the pragmatism of William James et al, which owed a great deal to Charles Sanders Peirce and Einstein’s own pragmatic explanation of his methods. Pragmatism is however quite distinct from Positivism.



Hegel wrote: “We take possession of a thing: (a) by directly grasping it physically, (b) by forming it, and (d) by merely marking it as ours.”. Hegel explores the limits of what it is possible to take possession of. Through the development of self-consciousness, one takes possession of one's self, but Hegel holds that it is contrary to right that a person can be the property of another.

Further Reading: Philosophy of Right.


Possibility and Reality

For dialectics there is no sharp line between Possibility, where conditions may be in the process of development, and the realisation of possibility. If all the conditions for a thing are present, then it will be realised.

For example, something may be considered possible; what does this mean? is this a question of calculating probabilities? or of making an act of will to determine the outcome? In general, dialectics would say that the answer lies only in understanding the totality of conditions which constitute the transition from possibility to reality and acting accordingly.

Further Reading: Hegel’s comprehensive critique of these concepts in Actuality.


Postmodernism is the period of bourgeois society from the late 60s/early 70s up to the present, and in particular the cultural aspects of this period, characterised by the marginalisation of traditional (religious, kinship, custom, etc.) practice and belief and a disappearance of the prospect of achieving social harmony.

Once capitalism, in the words of the Communist Manifestohas left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’ [and] drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation [and] resolved personal worth into exchange value”, then the basis for postmodern society has been laid. Postmodern society is characterised by scepticism in relation to science, all forms of authority and the possibility of an ethical life, by relativism and disbelief in any concept of value beyond 'what pays', while the very ideas of originality, progress and truth seem themselves to be derivative, out-dated and untrue.

The period of postmodernism began when the period of expansion of capitalism following the Second World War drew to a close. Belief in progress was bolstered after the devastation and barbarism of the Second World War, by the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods arrangements which allowed the dollar to be printed in unlimited amounts to finance the expansion of capitalism. This protracted Post-War Boom caused many former radicals to draw conclusions about the impossibility of rebellion and about capitalism having resolved its historic crisis. See for example Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.

At roughly the same time that the Bretton Woods arrangements collapsed in 1968, the failure of the student uprisings and the betrayal of the French General Strike, caused a number of formerly radical French intellectuals to begin elaborating sceptical and subjective views, which incorporated elements of Marxist theory, and which laid the foundations for postmodern social theory. (See biographies of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida). The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and other phenomena world-wide around this time demonstrated a rupture in the alliance between the workers' movement and the intelligentsia, an alliance which dated back to the Russian Revolution and before.

Beginning already in the 1950s, but accelerating following the collapse of the Bretton Woods arrangements and the boom in commodity prices which followed, the dominant capitalist powers turned decisively from being net exporters of capital towards importing capital, and relocating their manufacturing industries to countries offering cheap labour, relying on military supremacy, financial power and knowledge and image industries to maintain their dominance. This led to a situation where the division of labour between mental and manual labour which had been around as long a civilisation and which forms the basis for the separation of theory and practice, was now articulated on an international scale, with whole countries securing their domination over other nations on the basis of military and financial power and the “symbolic industries”. Any wonder then, in those countries, that idealist, sceptical and subjectivist outlooks became rampant, with writers theorising that “there is nothing outside of the text”. The same phenomena has been exhibited in the periods of decline of earlier civilisations. Especially as the limits on growth which were the root of the Environmental Movement became manifest, natural science lost the mystique it had held since the days of the Enlightenment. Social theory and feminist and marxist ideas in particular were turned to demonstrate the limits of scientific knowledge. (See Jacques Monod's Ethic of Knowledge and Jürgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interest).

See Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and Teresa Ebert's Untimely Critiques for a Red Feminism for varying descriptions of the nature and origins of postmodern thinking.



Poverty is to do with human needs and the means of meeting them, but human needs are historically determined. The miller in a mediaeval village enjoyed a life-style which was far from poverty in his own times, but the same mode of life in the midst of a modern city of today would constitute poverty. The young University student, living in digs serving tables to pay for her course, is “poor”, but, looking forward to a professional position and with parents ready to step in if needed, does not experience poverty. The pauper at the outset of the 21st century may have a TV and a fridge while living on social security; their poverty is evidenced in lack of education and any opportunity for improvement. But while the “poverty-line” is historically determined, a wholly relativist concept of poverty would be unwarranted because we do have a right to look to historical progress to overcome poverty.

Poverty has been around as long as class society, but in ancient times was more to do with the unpredictability of the weather and the low level of social productivity. Poverty became endemic and degrading only with the beginnings of the break-up of feudal or tribal society, with the enclosures in England, with the arrival of the colonialists in Asia and Africa. The emergence of bourgeois society brought with it a “rabble” suffering in systemic poverty. Many writers of the 18th and 19th centuries addressed themselves to this systemic, institutionalised, poverty which is characteristic of capitalism.

According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the origins of poverty lay in private property itself:

“... from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops. ...

“... there arose rivalry and competition on the one hand, and conflicting interests on the other, together with a secret desire on both of profiting at the expense of others. All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality.

“Before the invention of signs to represent riches, wealth could hardly consist in anything but lands and cattle, the only real possessions men can have. But, when inheritances so increased in number and extent as to occupy the whole of the land, and to border on one another, one man could aggrandise himself only at the expense of another; ... Usurpations by the rich, robbery by the poor, and the unbridled passions of both, suppressed the cries of natural compassion and the still feeble voice of justice, and filled men with avarice, ambition and vice. [Rousseau, On the Origin of Inequality of Mankind, 1754]

Rousseau showed that while equality prevailed in the state of nature, civilisation would bring about more and more extreme inequality so that in the end, in a negation of the negation – equality would be restored – as all lived in abject poverty under the rule of one absolute despot.

“There is so little difference between the two states in other respects, and the contract of government is so completely dissolved by despotism, that the despot is master only so long as he remains the strongest; as soon as he can be expelled, he has no right to complain of violence.

“The popular insurrection that ends in the death or deposition of a Sultan is as lawful an act as those by which he disposed, the day before, of the lives and fortunes of his subjects. As he was maintained by force alone, it is force alone that overthrows him. Thus everything takes place according to the natural order.” [Rousseau, On the Origin of Inequality of Mankind, 1754. See also Engels’ commentary in Anti-Dühring.]

Thus Rousseau advocated popular insurrection as the means of combating the growing inequality of eighteenth century France, and the establishment of a “Social Contract” to enforce egalitarianism.

Hegel was repelled by the Terror that he witnessed when the French Revolution attempted to implement Rousseau’s social contract by means of authoritarian egalitarianism. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel arrived at the conclusion that poverty was the inevitable outcome of market forces.

“Wealth, like any other mass, makes itself into a power. Accumulation of wealth takes place partly by chance, partly through the universal mode of production and distribution. Wealth is a point of attraction ... To them that have, shall be given. ... This inequality of wealth and poverty.” [Realphilosophie II]

And echoing Adam Smith’s proof that real wages were fixed by the minimum level of subsistence, Hegel identified poverty as an unsolved problem, probably the only such admission in his entire works:

“§ 244 Addition: The lowest subsistence level, that of a rabble of paupers, is fixed automatically, ... Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another. The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modem society.” [Philosophy of Right]

Hegel examined the possible solutions to poverty: public works to generate employment and the welfare state, both of which were advocated by Keynes 100 years later, but both of these he rejected.

§ 245: When the masses begin to decline into poverty, (a) the burden of maintaining them at their ordinary standard of living might be directly laid on the wealthier classes, or they might receive the means of livelihood directly from other public sources of wealth (e.g. from the endowments of rich hospitals, monasteries, and other foundations). In either case, however, the needy would receive subsistence directly, not by means of their work, and this would violate the principle of civil society and the feeling of individual independence and self-respect in its individual members. (b) As an alternative, they might be given subsistence indirectly through being given work, i.e. the opportunity to work. In this event the volume of production would be increased, but the evil consists precisely in an excess of production and in the lack of a proportionate number of consumers who are themselves also producers, and thus it is simply intensified by both of the methods (a) and (b) by which it is sought to alleviate it. It hence becomes apparent that despite an excess of wealth civil society is not rich enough, i.e. its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble. [Philosophy of Right]

The only solution for poverty that Hegel could come up with was to export the rabble to colonies.

Ҥ248 Addition: Civil society is thus driven to found colonies. Increase of population alone has this effect, but it is due in particular to the appearance of a number of people who cannot secure the satisfaction of their needs by their own labour once production rises above the requirements of consumers. [Philosophy of Right]

Hegel however proved that human needs developed historically just as did the means of satisfying these needs.

“§ 190: An animal’s needs and its ways and means of satisfying them are both alike restricted in scope. Though man is subject to this restriction too, yet at the same time he evinces his transcendence of it and his universality, first by the multiplication of needs and means of satisfying them, and secondly by the differentiation and division of concrete need into single parts and aspects which in turn become different needs, particularised and so more abstract. [Philosophy of Right]

and at the same time, the division of labour would lead to increasingly “abstract” and unsatisfying work:

“§ 198: ... the abstraction of one man’s production from another’s makes labour more and more mechanical, until finally man is able to step aside and install machines in his place. [Philosophy of Right]

So in Marx’s day, it was already established that poverty was a necessary outcome of the market.

It is a widely held misconception, however, that Marx held that the historic crisis of capitalism would inevitably reduce the mass of humanity to misery. What Marx did believe was that capitalism would abolish the middle ground, polarising society into a few wealthy capitalists on one hand and a mass of proletarians on the other. During the 20th century, Taylorism, Fordism and Toyotist methods of management led to the development of significant stratification in the working class going beyond what Marx was able to foresee in his time, however.

While the political economists had claimed to prove that wages could never go beyond certain boundaries determined by conditions:

“A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him”. and “The demand for those who live by wages, it is evident, cannot increase but in proportion to the increase of the funds which are destined for the payment of wages.” [Wealth of Nations, Chapter 8]

Marx believed that by means of unionism the working people could raise their living standards and increase their wages indefinitely, only providing that such struggles would be continuously subject to the repression of the capitalist state and the pressures imposed by the periodic crises of capitalism.

Further, Marx believed that the progress of bourgeois society would continue to develop human needs. The market, as had been shown by all those before him, would continue to generate rich and poor, but as the productive forces developed, human needs would develop, and the poverty of succeeding generations would be quite different from that of earlier generations.

“Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form - in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.

“The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.

“Just as through the movement of private property, of its wealth as well as its poverty - of its material and spiritual wealth and poverty - the budding society finds at hand all the material for this development, so established society produces man in this entire richness of his being produces the rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses - as its enduring reality. [Private Property and Communism]

Thus, Marxism sees poverty not so much as in the shortfall of means in meeting needs but in the low level of development of human needs. The person who wants only for their next meal experiences real poverty; the artist in her garret whose heart’s desire is a sublime insight or subtle nuance for their next artistic work is poor, but not as poor as the person who has no idea of art at all.

The poverty that communists seek to abolish with the overthrow of capitalism, is not so much the inequality of distribution, but the poverty of development of human sensibilities:

“We have seen what significance, given socialism, the wealth of human needs acquires, and what significance, therefore, both a new mode of production and a new object of production obtain: a new manifestation of the forces of human nature and a new enrichment of human nature. Under Private Property their significance is reversed: every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as to drive him to fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of enjoyment and therefore economic ruin. Each tries to establish over the other an alien power, so as thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need. [See also Comments on James Mill for more on this]

“The increase in the quantity of objects is therefore accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling and mutual plundering. Man becomes ever poorer as man, his need for money becomes ever greater if he wants to master the hostile power. The power of his money declines in inverse proportion to the increase in the volume of production: that is, his neediness grows as the power of money increases.

“The need for money is therefore the true need produced by the economic system, and it is the only need which the latter produces. The quantity of money becomes to an ever greater degree its sole effective quality. Just as it reduces everything to its abstract form, so it reduces itself in the course of its own movement to quantitative being. Excess and intemperance come to be its true norm.” [Human Needs and the Division of Labour]

The Great Depression of the 1930s led to bourgeois economy focusing its attention on the great depths to which poverty could fall under the impact of market forces. In his General Theory, John Maynard Keynes rejected the assumption of the economists that workers were in a position to refuse sale of their labour power if wages were too low. Consequently, there was no level of poverty below which workers could be forced, given a sufficiently high level of unemployment. From this time forward, developed capitalist states have recognised the need for welfare state measures to inhibit the development of extreme poverty. Keynesian economics was used to contain unemployment and welfare and labour market regulation were seen as consistent with profitable conditions for capital.

Keynesian methods broke down in the early 1970s, and Milton Friedman’s Monetarism became the new dogma. Using Friedman’s “supply side” economics, US President Ronald Reagan introduced the reactionary concept of the “trickle-down effect”, according to which the way to combat poverty was to move more resources to the rich.

By the late 1980s monetarism itself had fallen into disrepute, but capitalism was now more concerned with how to get along with mass poverty rather than in how to overcome it, and concentrates its efforts on political means of minimising the hostility of the poor and military means of crushing the resistance and “terrorism” of the poor.

So the fact remains, as was well known from the earliest days of capitalism: the market generates inequality and therefore poverty, and only by overthrowing the rule of the market can poverty be overcome.

Side by side with trascendance of the market, the general level of culture must be raised. Overcoming poverty is not about the reduction of human need to a level at which everyone can be satisfied, but rather in the fullest development of human needs, for it is human need which drives us, gets us out of bed in the morning, and the central and essential human need is to fulfil and express ourselves by meeting the needs of others.



Power is the ability of a class, dominant group, or individual to impose their will on society, another group or person.

A power structure can exist, when society is able to produce enough surplus that some members of society do not have a hand in production at all, but are able to administrate the productive process and the methods of distribution and exchange (this is made possible by the division of labour). Society required the various modes of production (the farmer, the blacksmith, the tailor) to share their produce in order to benefit one another: the blacksmith gets food that the farmer grows, and in turn makes implements for the farmer to plow the fields. Now, this sounds quite harmonious... until there is swindling by one person or the other, or when 'bandits', paupers, and 'barbarians' come into town to benefit from the hard work of this new society (what became known as stealing). With the soldier and policeman, power erupted -- the general could subdue the bandit and barbarian, the policeman could stifle the pauper and the arguments between the farmer and the blacksmith. Along with the rise of the state came the rise of government: some system of justice was necessary, laws were needed for proper conduct of trade and other affairs, a whole apparatus was required to run this new society. In order to administrate the rest of society, power took root; the right to tell others what to do.

This was just the embryo of the power structure that would spawn so many different results. One form of power and exploitation encouraged another. The farmer barely had a notion of "family" before society arose [....yet in time, patriarchy was soon to develop because....next came racism....] Power rests not only in the hands of the ruling class, but in dominant groups of every variety (whites vs. all "colored" people, men vs. women, etc, etc), and between individuals. The basis of the power structure, the root cause of the structured and societal existence of power, finds its ultimate rise and fall in the state.

Power is the basis of inequality. Individualism is an example of power; fascism takes the individual as a symbol of worship – the will of the individual is extolled and honored. The more singular the will that is being exerted over others, the more power is concentrated. The more distributed that will is (i.e. more collective decision making, etc), the more power is reduced. In essence, any relationship of power is the imposition of a singular ideology asserted over others, through persuasion or force. Patriarchy allows the ideology of the male to dominant and subjugate that of the female, while Feminism is the move to equalise that power relationship, i.e., to destroy it all together.

The opposing group or class that rises up to fundamentally challenge the relations of power is revolutionary. Those who seek to create power on new relations (based on new technology) are called left-wing (doing this through reform or revolution), while those who seek to retain or revert back to old fashioned power relations are called right-wing (being conservative/reactionary or fundamentalist).

Since revolutionaries fight the existing power structure, it is not without irony that they soon embrace, and in fact build, an entirely new power structure (this truth is a basis for political cynicism and anarchism) — in other words, they cease to be revolutionary and become conservative, reformist, etc. Moreover, naturally, the revolutionaries will destroy the instruments of power, but with what? They must use power to do so; e.g. using their class or group to impose their combined will on the rest of society. If they use power to destroy society and then rebuild it, why then would they ever let power go? Power will only begin to crumble when it is no longer socially necessary, e.g., when classes have disappeared, when goods are distributed to all people according to their needs. Thus, the first step of Socialist power is control over distribution to ensure that everyone's basic needs are met. When the role and need for power is usurped on the most basic and fundamental level, it can begin to unravel in it's many and diverse forms throughout society.

Nonetheless, there are "power relations" that will always exist — in a relation of one person asserting their will over another (whether through persuasion or force), but the formal structure of power is something that humanity will be able to abolish. Freedom is valid and a tangible reality so long as that freedom does not prevent others from practicing their freedom. Power is the warden of freedom; when power exists freedom declines; truly free relations between people are without power structures of any kind.