Paul Costello

Leninist Politics and the Struggle Against Economism

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 15, March-April 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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As we have discussed many times, American communism is in crisis. The crisis of the Communist Party, USA, with its ossified theory, its opportunist politics, and its blind allegiance to the Soviet Union, is a matter of common knowledge. The crisis of the anti-revisionist movement, and the still newer anti-dogmatist forces is no less real, if less recognized.

Founded on a critique of revisionism, later infused with another critique: that arising out of the struggle against dogmatism and class collaboration, genuine communists are still lacking an essential feature necessary to transform ourselves from a handful of squabbling local sects into a national political force.

That essential element is a general political line and the rigorous, all-sided theoretical analysis which informs it. For a general line is nothing less than the strategic and tactical orientation of struggle for proletarian revolution in the United States, the basis of Leninist political practice.

Such a general line, embodied in a party program and a tactical plan of work would enable our movement to define itself by what it is, not what it is against. Such a general line would be the basis for unifying and directing all communist activity, building the party, and fusing communism with the workers’ movement.

The exact features of such a general line for our movement cannot be predetermined; they must be forged in theoretical and political struggle. But we can begin now to establish the theoretical basis and requirements which will contribute to making that general political line truly scientific. Three of the key requirements for the production of such a general political line are:

(1) Knowledge of the character of a capitalist social formation and its central contradictions;
(2) Knowledge of the general conditions under which these contradictions will and will not create a revolutionary situation; and
(3) Knowledge of the role of communists in the development of these contradictions.

The treatment of these requirements in the theory, and in the history of the communist movement is the subject of this article.

The Character of the Capitalist Social Formation

The capitalist social formation presents itself as a complex structure of social relations, a unity of economic, political and ideological levels or instances in which the role of the economy is determinant. To say that the economy is determinant, or “determinant in the last instance,” does not imply any direct or immediate cause and effect relationship. That is, the economy is not some kind of “essence” of which politics and ideology are mere expressions or reflections (economic determinism). Nor can politics and ideology be understood as simple instruments or tools manipulated at will by the ruling class (instrumentalism). Politics and ideology, like the economy, are relatively autonomous instances. By this we mean that each has its own structure, its own contradictions, and its own rhythm of development. The development of each instance proceeds under the influence of both internal contradictions and laws, and the external affect of the other instances.

Taken together these instances form a complex totality, which means that the capitalist social formation develops, not as the expression of one single contradiction, but as the combined result of a multiplicity of contradictions. The basic or fundamental contradictions always develop and are affected by their existence alongside a host of lesser contradictions. Sometimes contradictions neutralize or cancel each other out; at other times they reinforce or intensify each other. Just as social development cannot be reduced to only one instance (the economy), so it cannot be reduced to a single contradiction. Rather we should see development as a process determined by the particular structure of the totality of contradictions, the multiplicity of contradictions structured by relations of domination and subordination. This multiplicity of contradictions and its affects is called overdetermination.

For instance, in Russia in 1917 the contradiction between wage labor and capital was overdetermined by the contradictions between the peasantry and the feudal ruling classes, between capitalism and feudalism, and between the imperialist states, which produced a revolutionary situation (revolutionary conjuncture.)[1]

Because of the importance of the economy in the capitalist social formation it is necessary to examine it in more detail. The economy, or the mode of production, is a combination of relations of production and productive forces. This combination or unity is structured by the dominance of the relations of production. Forces of production refer to the mode of appropriating nature, to the labor process by which raw materials are turned into finished products. Relations of production define the specific mode of appropriation of surplus labor and the corresponding forms of distribution of the means of production.

For example, capitalist relations of production define a mode of appropriation of surplus labor which works by means of commodity exchange. Capitalists buy means of production and items of personal consumption from each other. They buy labor-power from laborers in exchange for wages. With these wages the laborers buy items of personal consumption from capitalists and must then sell their labor-power for a further period in order to be able to buy further means of personal consumption. Appropriation of surplus labor here depends on the difference between the value of labor power and the value that may be created by means of that labor power. Surplus labor takes the form of surplus value.[2]

While the economy and its relations of production are distinct from politics and ideology, they are not entirely autonomous. Political and ideological relations “are themselves present, in the form specific to each mode of production, in the constitution of the relations of production. The process of production and exploitation is at the same time a process of reproduction of the relations of political and ideological domination and subordination.”[3]

Contradictions in the Capitalist Social Formation

As we noted above, the capitalist social formation is rent by contradictions. Speaking in general (not about any specific capitalist social formation), we can list a number of the more important ones. First, there are the contradictions within capitalism itself. There is the contradiction between capitalists and workers. There is the contradiction between productive forces and production relations. There is the contradiction between production and consumption, and between the conditions under which surplus value is produced and the conditions under which it is realized. In the present stage of capitalism, imperialism, these contradictions are not only internal to each country dominated by capitalism, but international, embracing the entire capitalist world.

Next, there is the contradiction between capitalism and various vestiges of pre-capitalist systems, such as simple commodity production, slavery, etc. This contradiction is more a problem for other capitalist countries than it is for the United States. Yet, we should not ignore certain important pre-capitalist vestiges in the South and Southwest, such as sharecropping and debt-peonage, which have played an important role in the development of the US economy.

While all these contradictions can be present and active, two stand out as central: the contradiction between production forces and relations of production and the class contradiction, primarily between the workers and the capitalists – class struggle.

Marx described the first contradiction in the following well-known quotation:

“The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialisation of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. The integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”[4]

Note that Marx speaks here metaphorically, describing without really defining the nature of this contradiction. But what is important in the quote is that it points up a vital characteristic of this contradiction: it is not “active” in capitalism from the beginning. Activity only becomes possible at a certain stage of capitalist maturity, the stage of large scale industry. At that point it becomes the central (but by no means the only) economic contradiction of capitalism.

If the economy is the basic site of the contradiction between forces and relations of production, all three instances are the site of class struggle, and class contradiction. They are the battlefields upon which the class struggle is fought out, and just as the social formation produces and reproduces them, it reproduces the class struggle within them, a struggle which was “active” in capitalism from its very inception.

Capitalism is secure as long as the necessary economic, political and ideological conditions of its existence can be continuously reproduced. A transitional period arises when the non-reproduction or the transformation of these conditions is a possible outcome of the class struggle.

This last point makes the relationship between the two contradictions clear. The contradictions between production forces and relations, by itself, can never “make the revolution.” Shaped by many factors including the class struggle, it can only help to create, at the economic instance, a favorable terrain for further class struggle, as can other contradictions at other levels, or at the level of the social formation itself. That is, while the character of the terrain determines the various possible outcomes of the class struggles being conducted, only the class struggle of the laboring masses itself can turn the possibility of transition into a reality. Put another way:

“The possibility or otherwise of transition depends on the specific forms of class struggle, its concrete objectives and the forces that can be mobilized in support of these objectives. The particular political ideological and economic conditions that determine these forms of struggle, these objectives and forces, are never reducible to or deducible from the structure of the dominant mode of production alone.”[5]

This is why Mao and all the other great revolutionary leaders have reminded us to “never forget class struggle,” for it is the cornerstone of our analysis, the foundation of our practice. As Poulantzas has written, “while economics plays the determinant role in the last instance (the fundamental contradiction), it is the class struggle . . . which has primacy in the historical process.” (Poulantzas’ italics)[6]

If this indeed is the theory of Marxism, then how are we to explain the long standing deviation which has dominated the world Marxist movement for much of its history? We are referring, of course, to economism, in its various forms, the break-down theory, economist catastrophism, and the theory of productive forces, to mention only the most prominent ones.

To answer this question we must return to Marx himself. In Capital we are presented with the results of Marx’s theoretical practice, his analysis of the capitalist mode of production. Nowhere does Marx give us a systematic elaboration of his conceptual framework and methodology. We only get bits and pieces of it scattered throughout Capital and a number of lesser works.

Inevitably therefore, the true character of Marx’s theory became the subject of an intense debate among subsequent Marxists. For our purposes here one of the most important debates concerned the nature of the contradiction between production forces and relations, and the importance of this contradiction for the future of capitalism.

Above we cited one of Marx’s more famous remarks on this contradiction. This quote can be read literally, or it can be read in the light of the totality of Marx’s mature work. The former method requires no particular effort; the latter requires a labor of extraction, elaboration and transformation which is as difficult as it is rewarding.[7]

Let us look at several other passages from Capital on this point. One of the more important concerns the contradiction between production forces and relations directly:

“The contradiction, to put it in a very general way, consists in that the capitalist mode of production involves a tendency toward absolute development of the productive forces, regardless of the value and surplus value it contains, and regardless of the social conditions under which capitalist production takes place; while on the other hand, its aim is to preserve the value of the existing capital and promote its self-expansion to the highest limit ...” (my italics, P.C.)[8]

Here Marx gives us the concept of a historical tendency, set within a complex structure of other tendencies which affect, counteract or modify it. As Marx explains with regard to another tendency:

“The same influences which produce a tendency in the general rate of profit to fall, also call forth counter-effects, which hamper, retard and partially paralyse this fall. The latter do not do away with the law, but impair its affect .... Thus, the law acts only as a tendency.”[9]

Ultimately, then, the contradiction between forces and relations of production can be best understood as a contradiction between two historical tendencies, whose effects work against each other, at the same time that they are modified by the totality of the other contradictions and processes at work under capitalism.

Marxism After Marx

After Marx’s death one of the most important tasks facing the socialist movement was to further enrich, deepen and develop scientific socialism, building on what Marx had done, and extending his analysis to take into account the new features of capitalism which were not present in his lifetime.

Unfortunately, however, as the socialist movement developed, particularly in the era of the Second International, the rigorous reading and further enrichment of Marxism was increasingly replaced by a vulgarization and impoverishment of many of Marx’s most important contributions. Increasingly there was a reliance on metaphors as a replacement for scientific concepts. The absence of any text by Marx himself on his own method facilitated this process, as did the mass practical activity of the leading parties of the Second International, an activity which took on a strong economist character.

This economist, reformist practice produced the ideological system to explain and justify it, particularly in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, the leading center of the Second International. We cannot go into all the affects of this ideological system on the revisionist alteration of Marxist theory, but we can examine its affect on the problems which are the subject of this paper. The revisionism of the Second International was characterized by a theoretical economism which transformed what Marx had seen as a possible outcome of class struggle into an economic inevitability. The historical tendency toward a crisis resulting from the contradiction between productive forces and production relations was transformed into an inevitable law of nature. Several other distortions of Marxism flowed from this initial one.

Most importantly, the centrality of class struggle at all levels of a social formation in the overthrow of capitalism was replaced by the centrality of an inevitable economic breakdown. Several examples will illustrate this argument. Karl Kautsky, the foremost Marxist of the Second International, wrote, in The Erfurt Program (1892):

“Capitalist society has failed; its dissolution is only a question of time; irresistable economic development leads with natural necessity to the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production. The erection of a new form of society in place of the existing one is no longer something merely desirable; it has become something inevitable.”(Kautsky’s italics)[10]

Kautsky’s reasoning in this respect is important, because it reflects the manner in which Marx’s historical tendency had become an absolute law without any counter-acting tendencies. “The capitalist method of production has limits beyond which it cannot go, ” Kautsky argued, by which he meant that productive relations were not merely a fetter, but an absolute block on the development of productive forces.” [11] The result was stagnation, waste and increasingly sharp crises leading to inevitable revolution. “The endeavor to uphold this system of property renders impossible all further social development, condemns society to stagnation and decay . . .”[12]

Not class struggle, but the effort of the productive forces to break free of their confining fetters was now the motive force in history, the driving force pushing capitalism toward socialist revolution. This view was not simply the domain of German Social Democracy, but a central theme of social democratic movements around the world. This is how Louis Boudin, the prominent American Marxist and leader of the Socialist Party, USA, presented the issue in his widely read The Theoretical System of Karl Marx (1907):

A system of production can only last as long as it helps, or at least does not hinder, the unfolding and full exploitation of the productive forces of society, and must give way to another system when it becomes a fetter, to production. That a system has become a hindrance, and a fetter to production when it has reached the point when it can only exist by preventing production, and by wasting what it has already produced, goes without saying . . . Such a system has become historically impossible . . .the capitalist system has reached that point.”(Boudin’s italics)[13]

Economism and Voluntarism

We can now begin to characterize this deviation – theoretical economism. For revolutionary Marxism the economic collapse of capitalism is in no sense inevitable, nor by any means will it come from a contradiction at the economic level alone. The economic tendencies of capitalism act against each other, some to fetter the productive forces, others to develop them. In no sense do production relations act as an absolute block to expansion of the productive forces. Finally, no matter what favorable conditions the economic contradictions produce, it is only when they are reinforced by political and ideological conditions and acted upon by the class struggle of the masses and the conscious activity of communists that the possibility of revolution exists.

Economism reduces the other levels of the social formation to a mere expression of the economy and social contradictions at all levels to an expression of the contradictions between forces and relations of production. In the end class struggle, too, becomes either a secondary characteristic and/or itself an expression of economic forces. Economism does not have to liquidate class struggle, its error consists in the role it assigns to it:

[Economism] does not deny the role of the class struggle . . . but relegates this to the secondary level: the class struggle intervenes essentially in order to smash production relations that hinder the development of the productive forces, thus engendering new production relations which conform to the needs of the development of the productive forces.[14]

We should not underestimate the affect of this approach on the strategy and tactics of the social democratic movement before World War I. Since, for the economists, advanced capitalism is always characterized by an absolute block on the development of the productive forces, and consequent stagnation, and increasing crisis, the necessary objective conditions for revolution are a permanent feature of advanced capitalism. All that is lacking is the subjective conditions – namely human consciousness.

This is why economism is often accompanied by voluntarism. Since the objective factor is presumed to be present in a permanent state of readiness, the only domain for socialist activity is developing the subjective factor: agitation and propaganda aimed at making the working class conscious of favorable conditions and convincing them to act accordingly. The political-organizational results of this view are well known: the social democratic parties restricted themselves to parliamentary politics and agitation, abandoning economic struggles entirely to the trade unions, which increasingly abandoned even the pretense of socialist activity.

This approach is voluntarist, because it neglects the role of class struggle and conscious leadership in the development of objective conditions.

Voluntarism complements economism because economism provides the justification for voluntarism with its notion of “permanently favorable objective conditions.” Louis Boudin demonstrates how easily the two go together in this remarkable passage:

“While the facts themselves which will lead to the displacement of the capitalist system must be strictly economic in their nature, that is to say the capitalist mode of production and distribution must become a fetter upon production before it can be overthrown, the actual power which will overthrow it, or at least the form that this will assume in the consciousness of the men who will do this work, may be of a moral or ethical character.”[15]

Socialism, which had gone from Utopian to scientific, has now come full circle.


It was only the intervention of the Bolsheviks in the international social democratic movement which offered an alternative to economism. Bolshevism demolished the “favorable objective conditions/unfavorable subjective conditions” model of revolutionary strategy, and thus made possible the revival of revolutionary Marxism. In the years before the First World War, leading Bolsheviks strove to transform the Marxism of the Second International in order to bring back into it a number of fundamental theses so as to combat economism.

One of the Bolsheviks’ most important contributions in this regard was its theory of imperialism as presented in Nikolai Bukharin’s Imperialism and the World Economy (1915) and Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916).

Bolshevism argued against the notion that the development of the productive forces was being absolutely blocked under mature capitalism, now called imperialism. Quite importantly, Lenin returned to Marx’s concept of the historical tendency in order to assert that Imperialism meant, not the blockage of the development of productive forces, but their rapid development, albeit in an uneven manner:

“It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a greater or lesser degree, now one and now another of these tendencies. On the whole capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before ... “(italics mine, P.C.)[16]

Imperialism does not abolish the contradictions of capitalism, but rather it intensifies them, reproducing them on an international scale. Significantly, Bolshevism restored to its central place in these contradictions, the role of class struggle. Against economism, it insisted that it would be the successful conduct of the class struggle, and not capitalism’s inevitable economic breakdown, which would lead to proletarian revolution. Observe Bukharin’s terse formulation: “The further existence of capitalism and imperialism becomes nothing more nor less than a question of the interrelation between mutually struggling class forces.”[17]

Accompanying this anti-economist assessment of the character of imperialism, Bolshevism also presented a radically different understanding of the conditions creating a revolutionary situation and the role of communists in its development.

Leninist Political Practice

If Bolshevism rejects the “favorable objective conditions/unfavorable subjective conditions” model, it posits in its place an analysis based on the concept of conjuncture, in which the character of objective and subjective factors is not a given, but the result of the overdetermination of contradictions. By ’conjuncture’ we mean the particular balance of class forces and the articulation of contradictions in a social formation at a particular moment or period of time. The character of the conjuncture determines the possible outcomes of the class struggle conducted within it.

Leninism, while insisting on the centrality of class struggle, always works to situate it in the multiplicity of contradictions, always working to recognize the interrelationship between class and other contradictions which make up the character of the conjuncture.

There are three general classes of conjunctures.

1) The socially stable conjuncture is characterized by the latent rather than explosive nature of capitalist contradictions and the relatively smooth process of capitalist development.
2) The crisis conjuncture is characterized by capitalism’s fundamental need for restructuring of one kind or another in order to maintain itself, but the possibility of state power passing out of the hands of the capitalists is not yet present.
3) The revolutionary or transitional conjuncture is characterized by the possibility of state power passing from the hands of the ruling class.

Clearly, the character of each conjuncture presents different possibilities for communist work. Therefore the determination of the nature of the period in which communists find themselves working is of the utmost importance. As Lenin explained:

“Marxism requires of us a strictly exact and objectively verifiable analysis of the relations of classes and of the concrete features peculiar to each historical situation. We Bolsheviks have always tried to meet this requirement, which is absolutely essential for giving a scientific foundation to policy.”[18]

Leninist political practice means that once the multiplicity of contradictions are understood in their specific conjunctural articulation, and the possibilities for class struggle and communist activity ascertained, then the varied class interests of the parties and the direction of a revolutionary working-class strategy can become clear. Leninist political practice entails conscious intervention at all levels of the social formation in the unfolding of these contradictions. The goal is to attempt to determine the direction of development of the social formation, to predict the possibilities which are presented by each conjuncture, and to act upon them: that is, to understand them concretely and throw all the forces which can be mobilized behind the alternative most favorable to the proletariat and its future struggle.

Such a mobilization requires the demarcation of political positions: drawing lines between friends and enemies, between long term friends and friends who form alliances for temporary and limited objectives. While this always entails the maintenance of the strategic and tactical independence of the proletariat, it is never reducible to some kind of “workerism.” Lenin always recognized that a revolutionary situation would not be created by the simple opposition of workers to capitalists but by the accumulated affect of a host of additional contradictions, acting in concert with the class contradiction to produce conditions favorable to socialist revolution. Althusser summarizes Lenin’s thought on this question:

“If this [class] contradiction is to become ’active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ’circumstances’ and ’currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ’direct opponents’), they ’fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend.”(Althusser’s italics)[19]

“Leninism” Since Lenin

Lenin once remarked that if Marx did not leave us his theory of logic, he nevertheless left us the logic of Capital. The same could be said of Lenin himself. While he never left us a work explaining his theory of political practice, he left us its fruits, a body of texts which are the practice of that theory. Yet even though Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks led a continuing struggle against economism, this deviation continued to exist within the Bolshevik ideological formation, and in the theory and ideology of many of the parties which rallied to Bolshevism after the Russian revolution and the formation of the Communist International.[20]

The early years of the Communist International, and in particular the period following Lenin’s death were a time of sharp struggle between forces which represented and defended Leninism and an anti-economist orientation, and forces whose orientation was essentially a throwback to the economism of the Second International. The results of that struggle have been summed up in the following theses:

“(1) The international Communist Movement has been affected since the 1930s ... by the effects of a single deviation which can provisionally be called the “Stalinian deviation.”
(2) The Stalinian deviation can be considered as a form... of the posthumous revenge of the Second International: as a revival of its main tendency.
(3) This main tendency was, as we know, basically an economist one.” (italics in original) [21]

While we cannot go into this process in detail here, we can nonetheless point out some of its salient features as they pertain to the subject of this article. Before doing so however, let us summarize some of the essential tenets of the economist problematic.

a) insistence that the development of productive forces is the decisive factor in social development (theory of productive forces);
b) reduction of the class contradiction to an expression of the contradiction between forces and relations of prduction;
c) insistence that under advanced capitalism production relations are an absolute block on the development of production forces leading to stagnation, decay, crisis and inevitable capitalist collapse (economist catastrophism);
d) this situation leading to permanently favorable objective conditions for proletarian revolution.

All these notions, which we found in Kautsky and Boudin at the turn of the century, make their reappearance in the writings of the communist movement in the 1930s.

It is in the writings of Stalin that the “theory of productive forces” finds its most well known theoretical expression. In the section of his article, Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1939), which treats historical materialism, the class struggle is largely absent, given none of the importance attributed to the development of productive forces. Production forces are characterized as the “most mobile, and revolutionary element in production.” “First, the productive forces of society change and develop, and then, depending on these changes and in conformity with them, men’s relations of production, their economic relations, change.”[22] (Stalin’s italics). Elsewhere in the text the contradiction between forces and relations of production and the class struggle are presented in a cause and effect relationship.[23]

These theoretical positions led to determinant political effects, not only in the Soviet Union, but in the international communist movement, where economism had never been under sharp attack as it had been in the Bolshevik Party. The world economic crisis which began in 1929, coupled with the defeat of the Leninist forces in the Communist International, enormously strengthened the economist tendencies already existing. The principle watchword of the economists was the notion of “the general crisis of capitalism.”

Although this term had made its appearance earlier, it took on a strongly economist character after 1928-29. Into this single phrase was concentrated all the elements of the economist problematic outlined above. In 1920 Lenin had warned the Second Congress of the Communist International against revolutionaries who sought to prove that the capitalist crisis was insoluble. “This is a mistake,” he argued; “There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation.” And, he added, “To try to ’prove’ in advance that there is ’absolutely’ no way out of the situation would be sheer pedantry or playing with concepts and catchwords. Practice alone can serve as real ’proof in this and similar questions.”[24]

In spite of Lenin the notion of the “general crisis of capitalism” was developed in the 1930s precisely on this basis. Instead of recognizing the great depression to be a particular conjuncture in capitalist development, a crisis conjuncture with the possibility that the bourgeoisie could restructure its way out of the crisis, the economists determined that it was, in fact, the final insoluble crisis of capitalist decline. The authoritative British Communist Political Economy study guide (1933) (recently republished by the Revolutionary Communist Party) explains: “Capitalism then enters the era of contradictions which are insoluble within the framework of bourgeois society. The general crisis of capitalism . . . forms a stage of a phase of imperialism, a whole epoch in capitalism’s decline ....” (italics mine, P.C.)[25]

The full implications of the economist denial of capitalism’s ability to rescue itself were more clearly spelled out in one of the more popular works of the 1930’s, R. Palme Dutt’s Fascism and Social Revolution (1934). Dutt repeats all the themes we have seen, the permanently revolutionary objective conditions argument, the notion of blocked production forces, the idea that capitalism’s crisis is insoluble for the bourgeoisie.[26]

In Dutt’s conception the class struggle is no longer subordinate, it virtually disappears altogether. No longer is it the class struggle which is the guarantee of communism, but the action of productive forces. In this, the most extreme form of the theory of productive forces, Dutt does not hesitate to inform us:

“Revolutionary Marxism is confident that, because the productive forces are on the side of Communism, Communism will conquer; that the victory of Communism, which is expressed in the victory of the proletariat, is ultimately inevitable as the sole possible outcome of the existing contradictions ...” (my italics, P.C.)[27]

Finally, we should not overlook the voluntarist component which faithfully accompanied economism’s victory in the Communist International. Dutt manages to express it and the “favorable objective conditions/unfavorable subjective conditions” model in a passage which is strikingly similar to Boudin’s of thirty years before:

“The objective conditions for the social revolution were ripe already from the beginning of the period of imperialism . . . But the living human factor was not ready. The minds of men were still dominated by the conceptions of the past epoch.”[28]

While there is no question that the line of the Communist International was more complex and contradictory than what we have just outlined, it would not be stretching the truth to say that economism, or more precisely what Poulantzas calls economist catastrophism was the dominant ideological conception of the world communist movement during the economic crisis of the 1930’s. Fatalism and faith in the idea of “the inevitable victory of communism” became more pronounced as a result of the series of defeats which the world communist movement suffered in the 1930’s, particularly the fascist victory in Germany in 1933.

The Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, noted this phenomenon and the danger of it becoming a substitute for a Leninist conjunctural analysis when he wrote:

“When one does not have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself is ultimately identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a formidable power of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance. ’I am defeated for the moment but the nature of things is on my side in the long run,’ etc. Real will is disguised as an act of faith, a sure rationality of history, a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism, which appear as a substitute for the predestination, providence, etc., of the confessional religions.”[29]

While certain analytical and political conclusions of the early 1930s were changed after the Seventh Congress of the Communist International (1935), the theory of productive forces, the notion of the “general crisis of capitalism” and fatalistic inevitability remained unchanged, and continue with us today.

But it was not only within the ranks of the Communist International that the economist interpretation became dominant. Indeed, every major dissident communist movement shared many of the economist themes that we have observed in Comintern-inspired texts. In particular the Trotskyism of the 1930s was marked by the fusion of the most extreme forms of economism and voluntarism. The basic programmatic document of the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky’s “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”(The Transitional Program) (1938), is essentially founded on an economist-voluntarist analysis.

Trotsky begins with a picture of the world in which “mankind’s productive forces stagnate” and where “the bourgeoisie itself sees no way out” of the crisis which it has created. At the end of this section Trotsky concludes that only a communist vanguard is lacking:

“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet ‘ripened’ for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened;” they have begun to get somewhat rotten . . . The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”[30]

The effects of this economism on the strategy and mass activity of the world communist movement in the 1930s was all-encompasing. For Leninism, political practice is based on the primacy of class struggle and the struggle for proletarian hegemony. It requires an exact knowledge of the state and balance of class forces. By displacing class struggle, economism lost the cornerstone of proletarian strategy, and replaced it with essentially non-class criteria.

In the early 1930s, during the so-called “third period” the “left” economism of the Communist International based its strategy on the contradiction between Communism (the Communist Party and its allies) and Fascism (the fascists, the “social-fascists,” and everyone else). This strategy placed the overwhelming majority of the working class in the developed capitalist countries into the enemy camp and served to further isolate the already weak communist parties.

In the period which followed the Seventh Congress of the Communist International (1935) the “right” economism that developed based its strategy on the contradiction between Democracy (all anti-fascist, popular forces) and Fascism (the fascists, the reactionaries, etc.). This strategy also liquidated the class lines by including communists, the workingclass and sections of the bourgeoisie in the same camp. If this strategy was more successful, it was only at the expense of the workingclass which became tied to the political parties and ideological illusions of bourgeois democracy.

It is interesting to note here that Poulantzas has suggested that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was directly connected to his notion of a permanent objectively revolutionary situation.[31]

As we know (taking a cue from Lenin), practice was the real proof on this question. Capitalism’s crisis was not insoluble; the bourgeoisie solved its crisis at the expense of the workingclass, in World War II and its immediate aftermath, in spite of the defeats it registered in Eastern Europe, China and Southeast Asia. Repeated Communist predictions in the post-war period of a new great depression failed to materialise. The development of the productive forces of capitalism was tremendously accelerated after the Second World War. The long wave of relative capitalist decline, 1914-1939, had given way to a new long wave of capitalist expansion, 1940-1966.[32]

The lessons of these two long waves, particularly in terms of the ability of capitalism to pull itself out of a lengthy international crisis, have not been adequately assessed by the communist movement. This failure is particularly tragic inasmuch as we have witnessed, since the mid-1960s, world capitalism entering a new period in which it is once again increasingly prone to crisis and economic difficulty. The conditions favoring the rebirth in an even more pronounced form of economism exist; and a determined theoretical-political struggle against economism-voluntarism is one of the most important tasks facing our movement in the course of our effort to forge a general political line.

The Contemporary Communist Movement

The international communist movement has never clearly identified economism, nor consciously taken up the task of combatting it in order to defend and further develop Leninist political practice. As often as not it has been unable to distinguish between the two, as Enver Hoxha’s book Imperialism and Revolution (1978) amply demonstrates.[33]

Today, various forces in the United States’ communist movement are trying to make of the present economic difficulties an unfolding revolutionary situation , or at least an insoluble crisis. Interestingly enough, this perspective is shared by both the “right” and the “left,” which only goes to show that it is basic theoretical deviations, and not the “left” or “right” political positions derived from them, which are the most important obstacles holding back our movement.

Gus Hall, general secretary of the Communist Party, USA, preaches economist catastrophism (“for capitalism there are no periods of economic stabilization left”) in the same manner in which the Revolutionary Communist Party argues the strong possibility of a revolutionary situation in the United States in the next ten years. Meanwhile, the Communist Workers Party is predicting the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in the next three to five years.[34]

All of these groups equate economic difficulties with a general crisis, and all see intensified class struggle as its inevitable and automatic byproduct. Strategically, the campaigns which the Revolutionary Communist Party has recently initiated speak directly to the strong voluntarist complement of the economism of the “left.” With objective conditions favorable or increasingly so, the RCP has more and more shifted the focus of its work from shop and trade union activity to general agitation and individual “vanguard” actions aimed at developing the subjective factor. This is the same spontaneous response to a crisis which produced the host of “vanguard” actions by the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, and has just as little in common with Leninism.

The domination of economism in theory and in the practical activity of the communist movement must be broken if we are to produce the necessary general line and practice on which to go forward toward a genuine communist party. The crisis of American communism which has developed because of the absence of such a party actively engaged in Leninist political practice will only intensify if we do not begin to take up this necessary struggle in an all-sided way. This article has only begun to point out some of the problems of our historical legacy, and to raise some of the issues still to be resolved. By way of conclusion we can, in very schematic fashion, outline the following framework of analysis and tasks as a necessary first step for our movement along this path.

Thesis #1: Imperialism is an international system characterized by the combined and uneven development of class struggle and productive forces and relations on a world scale. The character and role of each country in this system both affects and is affected by the international class struggle, the motive force in history.

Task #1: To produce a rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the world imperialist system, the overdetermination of its principal contradictions, direction of development and the balance of class and national forces.

To identify the place and role of the United States in the world context (its hegemony and countervailing tendencies). Determine how this international hegemony, and possible changes in it, produce (and can produce) determinant effects within the United States social formation.

Thesis #2: Advanced capitalism in the United States combines all the strengths of world capitalism with all its most extreme contradictions. Its past history and its present international hegemony have produced one of the strongest and most powerful capitalist classes in history. At the other pole is a workingclass whose class consciousness has never developed in a significant national or multi-racial sense. Yet all of this has not spared United States capitalism from experiencing violent social dislocation and militant class struggle.

Task #2: Based on the experience of the past, and the present long wave of relative capitalist decline, to determine the general direction of development of the United States social formation, the possible alternative means of response or restructuring open to the bourgeoisie, and the possible responses open to the workingclass. To determine the position and relative strengths (and weaknesses) of the various forces which could be mobilized behind each alternative, particularly the alternative most favorable to the workingclass, and the alternative most likely to be realized – i.e., to determine an overall strategy. At every particular moment in the class struggle to determine if developments are proceeding in harmony with the general analysis or diverging from it, and the appropriate responses – i.e., develop correct tactics.

Thesis #3: Marxism-Leninism is unalterably opposed to economism and voluntarism.

Task #3: To wage a vigorous struggle against economism, against all notions of economist catastrophism, the equation of economic contradictions with class struggle, the theory of productive forces and the “favorable objective conditions/unfavorable subjective conditions” models. Reaffirmation of Leninist political practice: the insistence that proletarian class struggle waged at all levels is an indispensible element in the creation of favorable economic, political and ideological conditions for revolution, and the decisive element in turning revolutionary possibility into revolutionary actuality.


[1] “Editorial,” Communist Formation #1 (Dec, 1977), p. 2.

[2] Barry Hindess and Paul Q. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (RKP, 1975), p. 10.

[3] Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (Verso, 1978), p. 21.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1 (Vintage, 1977), p. 929.

[5] Hindess and Hirst, p. 280.

[6] Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship (NLB, 1974), p. 40.

[7] On this point see Louis Althusser, “Sur Le travail Theorique,” in La Pensee # 132 (April, 1967).

[8] Capital vol. 3 (International, 1967), p. 249.

[9] Ibid., p. 239.

[10] Quoted in Lucio Colletti, “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International,” From Rousseau to Lenin (MR, 1972), pp. 55-56.

[11] Quoted in Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (MR, 1942), p. 198.

[12] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program) (Ken, 1910), pp. 88-89.

[13] Louis B. Boudin, The Theoretical System of Karl Marx (Kerr, 1907), p. 254.

[14] Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR. First Period: 1917-1923 (MR, 1976), p. 23.

[15] Boudin, pp. 152-53.

[16] Lenin, Selected Works, vol. 1, p. 765.

[17] Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and the World Economy (MR, 1973), p. 133.

[18] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 43.

[19] Althusser, For Marx (Pantheon, 1969), p. 99.

[20] On this point see Bettelheim’s Class Struggles in the USSR.

[21] Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism (NLB, 1976), p. 89.

[22] J. Stalin, Problems of Leninism (FLPH, 1940), p. 608. Later on Stalin was to liquidate the contradiction between production forces and relations entirely. See his comments on how ”relations of production must necessarily conform with the character of the productive forces” in Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. (1952)

[23] Ibid., p. 613.

[24] Lenin, Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 399.

[25] Political Economy (Banner, 1976), p. 402.

[26] R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution (International, 1935), p. 46.

[27] Ibid., p. 15.

[28] Ibid., p. 46.

[29] Quoted in For Marx, p. 105.

[30] Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder, 1974), pp. 72, 73.

[31] Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship, p. 46.

[32] On the theory of long waves see Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (Verso, 1978) and also his The Second Slump (NLB, 1978).

[33] Enver Hoxha, “Imperialism and Revolution,” Proletarian Internationalism vol. 1, no. 2 (Feb. 1979), pp. 43-44.

[34] Gus Hall is quoted from his “The Crisis of US Capitalism and the Fightback,” in The Failure of the Left to Create a Mass Movement and A Way Forward by the Political Education and Action Collective (New York), p. 33. On the RCP see Bob Avakian’s remarks in Revolution, vol. 4, nos. 10-11 (Oct-Nov. 1979). On the CWP see Workers Viewpoint, vol. 4, no. 18 (Nov. 5, 1979).