Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

’...fan the flames’

First Published: The Guardian, January 7, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: 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.

One of the most impressive developments on the U.S. left in the past five years has been the reawakened commitment to Marxism-Leninism as the only sound theoretical basis for social revolution.

Not only has this been typified by the emergence of national new communist organizations and local Marxist-Leninist groups, but it has also produced a near-unprecedented wave of study of revolutionary theory. No one knows for sure how many Marxist-Leninist study groups exist throughout the country, but their number is easily in the hundreds and the actual number of people actively studying Marxism-Leninism on a systematic basis is in the thousands.

This phenomenon is made all the more remarkable by the legacy of anti-intellectual activism that characterized much of the 1960s new left and the general disrepute into which theory had fallen as a result of the political bankruptcy of the revisionist Communist Party which, for years, continued to be associated with Marxism-Leninism in the minds of many people.

In a larger sense, the study of revolutionary theory in the U.S. has been historically impeded by the pernicious American legacy of pragmatism which, basing itself on the assumption that “whatever works is best,” has exalted immediate experience at the expense of developing a scientific overview of reality.

This upsurge in the study of scientific socialism as developed through the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao (among others) is, therefore, of the greatest importance in helping us to establish a firm basis for a communist movement that will be equipped to tackle the strategic and tactical tasks of building a party, developing its line and making it into a meaningful (and ultimately vanguard) political force.

As with all other subjective political developments, the process of soundly grasping Marxist-Leninist theory is confronted by the twin dangers of right opportunism and left-sectarianism. By far the biggest obstacle is from the right.

The concentrated weight of bourgeois ideology which pervades every institution in which ideas are shaped is a powerful force that is not readily overcome. Among the masses of workers, many assumptions basic to bourgeois rule–property “rights,” bourgeois “democracy,” white chauvinism, sexism, individualism–still retain a powerful grip. All this is fed by a carefully cultivated anti-intellectualism designed to make ideology suspect and at the same time to make the masses believe themselves incapable of grasping theoretical concepts.

The denigration of theory is likewise reflected in the general workers’ movement (the narrow “economism” of the trade unions is itself a reflection of a pragmatic view) and among the broad anti-imperialist forces from whose ranks many of the cadre for a new communist party will inevitably come.

To say that a number of groups are “anti-theory” is not to suggest that they are necessarily at a loss for “ideas” or for words to express them. The various strains of anarchism, “socialist feminism,” revolution by cultural model alteration, “gay liberation” and neosocial-democracy are copious enough when it comes to producing the assortment of political literature which expresses their views.


Despite disagreements with each other, what all these tendencies have in common is the view that Marxism-Leninism is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, politically bankrupt. In its place, they substitute an enormous variety of Utopian schemes and analyses which, in varying degrees, attempt to refute one or more of the following fundamental propositions of scientific socialism:

Class struggle is the motor force of historical development.
The proletariat is the only revolutionary class in capitalist society.
Basing a revolutionary strategy on the possibility of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism is an invitation to disaster and an act of class betrayal.
Imperialism is a system flowing inevitably out of capitalist development and cannot be changed through some act of will or political position short of the overthrow of the capitalist system.
A revolutionary party of a new type, along the general lines outlined by Lenin and since amplified by the experiences of many communist parties, is an indispensable instrument for successful proletarian revolution.
The aim of the working class in seizing state power is to thoroughly reorganize society along socialist lines and the dictatorship of the proletariat is the indispensable political instrument for the consolidation and construction of a socialist society.

The above by no means exhausts the basic principles of scientific socialism. But it should serve as a useful starting point in differentiating Marxism-Leninism today from the various brands of Utopian socialism and social democracy which have an influence on the left, as well as from both revisionism and Trotskyism.

The challenge to revolutionary theory, however, does not come only from the right. Its “left” deviation, a matter which should be of particular concern to the new communist movement, is characterized by dogmatism and a schematic rather than dialectical relationship between theory and practice.

Just as pragmatism “worships” facts, so does dogmatism “worship” theory. The mere compilation of data without the class stand of the proletariat and a world view based on the collective experience of the international communist movement becomes a futile exercise which sooner or later is bound to subvert revolutionary strategy.

Similarly, the “mastering” of the classical works of Marxist-Leninists without fully grasping the dialectical essence of concretely applying theory to problems at specific times and places is to doom such “revolutionaries” to the role of either idle commentators on or totally ineffectual interveners in the social process.

In the final analysis, dogmatism is merely metaphysics disguising itself as Marxism-Leninism. Revolutionary theory is neither a hothouse for the careful cultivation of unsullied principles nor a polemical sledgehammer to be trotted out when the demands of factional struggle require ideological justification.

Theory and practice are the interpenetrating opposites of revolutionary reality. Theory, which grows out of practice, is the indispensable guide to practice. But ultimately, practice is the more decisive aspect of this unity of opposites. For our task is, as Marx said, not to interpret the world but to change it.

Pragmatism would have us approach this task without benefit of map or compass, without the concentrated experience of world revolutionary thought and practice. Dogmatism would have us approach this task with a textbook and a rented post office box in which we can regularly receive the political insights which will guide our struggle.

Both courses may momentarily satisfy a few intellectual vanities, but neither will advance the process of revolution. Only the mastery of Marxist-Leninist theory and, in particular, grasping its dialectical essence, will enable us to chart our own revolutionary path in which the basic truths of scientific socialism will be applied to the concrete conditions of this place and this time.