Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

by Charles Gagnon

For a materialist understanding of history

First Published: In Struggle! No. 212, August 5, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Marxist-Leninists took up the struggle against modern revisionism more than twenty years ago. Nevertheless, Marxist-Leninist forces are still relatively weak, and in most countries the working-class movement and anti-imperialist movements are dominated by reformist, social-democratic or revisionist influences.

So the struggle against revisionism is still of very vital and urgent concern. The triumph of socialism depends on this struggle being carried through to a successful conclusion. This is why it is of interest to all those who aspire sincerely for a society free from exploitation. Among the broad strata of the people working for the triumph of socialism in the world, one of the distinguishing features of Marxists is that they have a materialist approach to history.

We believe it is important to reemphasize this point today, for in the past twenty years there has been a strong tendency to insist primarily on the errors and betrayals of this or that personality. If one is to believe what one reads or hears, this tendency has led some to conclude that if only the Russian or Chinese or other communists had not made this or that mistake, and if only Trotsky, Khrushchev, Liu Shaoqi and so on had not been traitors, then the revolution would have been a through success in those countries.

But are matters really all that simple? Are Khrushchev, Liu or Mao really entirely to blame for the restoration of capitalism that is in process in China, and that has to all intents and purposes been carried out in the U.S.S.R.? Or does responsibility for this situation lie solely with the communist parties that allowed such renegades to retain leadership?

We do not think that these are satisfactory answers. Indeed, such answers ignore the basic elements of the theory of history worked out by Marx and Engels. This is why we have chosen to review the fundamental aspects of historical materialism before undertaking an examination of the history of the struggle for socialism.

We realize that some of the basic elements of historical materialism have been hotly debated and interpreted in various ways. This is the case, for example, with the relationship between the “productive forces” (the economic aspect) and the “relations of production” (the ideological and political aspects of social reality). It is perhaps time to reopen the debate, this time on the basis of the struggle for socialism in the last sixty years.[1]

Historical materialism: key component of Marxism

Historical materialism is the name for the scientific theory and method developed by Marx and Engels starting in the 1840s. This was precisely the period in which the working class began to see itself as a distinct class and started to play an increasingly important political role in the industrialized countries of the time. These countries included Canada and the United States to some degree but even more so Western Europe. It happened in all those countries where the bourgeois revolution was fully underway.

Marx’s theory of history and philosophy comes down to one basic point. The basis of human society and history is not ideas. Rather society is the product of the struggle of men for survival, for social reproduction: to feed, clothe and house themselves and their children.Marx refined his materialist understanding of history by systematically criticizing the philosophers of his age. He took on Hegel and Feuerbach and the highly-regarded economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He marshalled the scientific and historical knowledge that existed at the time to show that the relationships which had been established between men throughout history were, in the final analysis, determined by the means which they had available to them to perpetuate their material existence. Further, the ideologies which had been built up over the years were themselves the reflection of the social relationships (between men or, more accurately, between social classes of men) which had developed on the basis of the material conditions in which the proponents of those ideologies lived.

In 1859, Marx used these words to describe the results of the research he had carried out to establish what he called “the anatomy of civil society”:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which corresponds definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.[2]

Look at the material conditions in which the struggle for socialism has taken place

Just such an “era of social revolution” opened with the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 (October according to the Julian calendar used in Tsarist Russia). It would continue after the Second World War with the creation of the “socialist camp”, made up of countries like China, the U.S.S.R., Eastern Europe. Today nearly all these countries have abandoned the struggle for socialism. In each case, they have become societies which are divided into social classes where the mode of production can be described as “State capitalist”. They have taken the road of restoring capitalism.

Why did the building of socialism stop in these countries? Why did the social relationships of exploited and exploiter which were being eliminated end up becoming predominant again? How was a new ruling class able to come to power? The problem of modern revisionism exists first and foremost in relation to these questions. The usual answer has been that control of the party and State passed into the hands of revisionists, of bourgeois elements, of traitors to the cause of socialism. These elements then quickly constituted themselves as the dominant class and consolidated their rule. The traditional answer concludes by showing how the ideas and actions of these renegades is in conflict with Marxist-Leninist principles. The same judgement has also been passed on the revisionist betrayal by the leaders of communist parties in capitalist countries where the revolution failed to take place.

We know this method of approaching the history of the communist movement and the struggle for socialism all too well. We have adhered to it ourselves. We do not wish to suggest in criticizing it that various communist leaders have not in fact become renegades and traitors.

They have. Some have even become ardent warriors for the other side fighting against the cause which they had once upheld. History is filled with examples of such treachery. Noting that aspect of history is one thing. It is quite another to take one step further and pretend that the last 100 years of history has been determined by the errors and betrayals of these sad individuals.

Let us continue on with the same passage from Marx we were looking at earlier:

Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal political, religious, artistic or philosophic in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the ftamework of the old society.[3]

This statement by Marx might be the key to a scientific explanation of the reverses in the struggle for socialism thus far. He says that “no social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed.” We say Marx’s perception might be the key advisedly, because we do not wish to jump to any conclusions before the historical analysis has been properly made. Nevertheless, Marx’s observation certainly shows clearly how to avoid falling into the idealist trap which we criticized above.

Marx says quite plainly that when one studies the changes brought about by a revolution “it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production (and the) ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” (Ed. note – emphasis ours).

Is it not a fact that up to now we have far too often been satisfied with making a critique of revisionism which is confined to the “ideological forms” in which the communist parties have become conscious of the developments in the socialist or revolutionary struggle? Have we not at the same time accorded virtually no attention whatever to the “material transformation of the economic conditions of production” which there and everywhere are the very basis of these particular ideological forms?

We think that this is exactly what has been happening. And it is still going on. The criticism of revisionism and the study of those countries which at one time were building socialism is being carried out on a purely ideological level. As often as not, the correctness of a given position or action is judged solely by whether it conforms or not to one or another position already adopted by Marx, or Engels, or Lenin, or Stalin...

Nothing could be more alien to Marxism than this basically idealist way of analysing history. It is not surprising either that such argumentation carries very little weight with workers. The working class remains strongly under the sway of reformist and revisionist ideas. Those ideas must be fought, discredited, and rooted out so that a materialist way of looking at things can be made to prevail again. That is how we will develop the strategy and tactics for the struggle for socialism which correspond to the material conditions of modern day imperialist society. Only a scientific, as opposed to the ritualistic dogmatic and metaphysical, application of Marxism-Leninism will enable us to understand the social, economic and political conditions of today’s world correctly.

In conclusion, we make the committment that henceforth our efforts to understand revisionism better will proceed in the first stance from improving our knowledge of the objective developments of the past 100 years. Fundamentally. we will try to grasp better what the relationships were between the different social classes in the various countries. It is on this basis that we will be able to sum up the practice of the communist movement as an active and often leading force in the struggles of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

Armed with this information, we will try to figure out what led the communists to act in such and such a manner in given situation. We will not content ourselves with making a simple litmus test to see if their views were a faithful restatement of what Marx or Lenin may have already said. We will try instead to understand what contradictions they had to grapple with and then look at the resolution they proposed to those contradictions. More particularly we will look at which social strata or class had its interests served by such a solution.

We are not interested in weaving a magical sounding history which is peopled only by mummified heroes and villains. Historical truth must be rescued from such a grave. That is how the history of the past can be made to serve the present and future struggle of the working class and oppressed people to free themselves.


A short article like this one obviously cannot explain what historical materialism is thoroughly. Here are some other texts we would suggest if you want to look at this issue more seriously.

– Engels, F., Karl Marx, Selected Works in One Volume of Karl Marx and Freidreich Engels, New York, International Publishers, 1974, pp. 369-378. This brief article, written in June 1877 by Engels, puts forward what he sees as Marx’s main contributions. He pays particular attention to “the revolution brought about by him in the whole conception on of world history.” (op. cit., p.374)

– Engels, F., “Letter to Joseph Bloch,” September 21 (-22) 1890, Selected Works in One Volume, op.cit., pp. 692-3. This letter is in a sort of a way to complement to the previous article. Engels explains here that, while the economic factors are decisive in the final analysis in the history of human society, they are not the only factors. There are others which intersect the fashion the physionomy of human societies at each stage in their evolution.

– Marx, K., “Preface”, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” Selected Works in One Volume, pp. 230-234. This very short piece by Marx, written in 1859, states clear how he had begun to develop “the theory of historical materialism”, which he defines succinctly here. Marx also explains some of the elements of historical materialism in another very interesting article written in 1857, “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy.”

For those who want to really improve their grasp of this matter, the following works are recommended:
– Engels, .F., Anti-Duhring, Peking Foreign Languages Press, 1976. A 500-page book written between 1876 and 1878.
– Engels, F., “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy,” Selected Works in One Volume, op. cit., pp. 594-632: A relatively short work of 39 pages produced in 1888.
– Marx, K. and F. Engels, The German Ideology, New York, International Publishers, 5th edition, 1976. A big book which gives an embryonic explanation of materialism. Written in 1844-45.
– Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Collected Works, vol. 14, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, pp. 17-362. Written in 1908.
– Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Calcutta, New Book Centre, 1976. Written in September 1938.


[1] Just as we completed this article, we came across an article by Foto Cami, member of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania, in Albania Today, no 2 (51), 1980.

[2] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, New York, International Publishers, 1970, Preface pp. 20-21.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.