ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, September 1997


Gill Hubbard

A Guide to Action


From International Socialism 2:76, September 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


From Marx to Gramsci
P. Le Blanc (ed.),
Humanities Press 1996

The power of this book lies in Le Blanc’s excellent selection and presentation of some of the most fundamental ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci. His choice of references and the framework for his selection rest on the premise that the central pivot of Marxism is ‘proletarian revolutionary practice’. Despite Le Blanc’s somewhat pessimistic assessment of the prospects for revolution it is worth stating that anyone who wishes to read the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci in order to change the world, could not go far wrong with reading this book.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is full of excellent quotations from the five selected Marxists, intertwined with Le Blanc’s own intelligent analysis of their meaning. It is both informative and interesting. Le Blanc is, without doubt, someone who likes to debate with his readers rather than simply present the facts. The second part is devoted to excerpts from Marx and Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci. These have been carefully chosen for the reader as a guide to revolutionary practice. It is this aspect which makes the book so valuable.

The central pivot of Marxism

The writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci are not only crucial for understanding the world and human history, they are also as, Lenin suggests, a ‘guide to action’. [1] It is the practical political activity which brings the theory to life, and one without the other is useless. Le Blanc explains why the writings of these key Marxists were selected for a book which embraces Marxism as revolutionary practice. Despite differences in their outlook, Le Blanc argues that it ‘is the underlying continuity of theoretical orientation and practical political perspective which unites them’. [2]

Le Blanc briefly explains in chapter one that Marx and Engels were influenced by German philosophy, classical political economy predominantly from Britain, and French political thought. But, as Le Blanc points out, it was the early working class radicalism which arose in Britain, France and Germany in the 1830s and 1840s which most profoundly shaped their distinctive ideas. It is worth quoting Le Blanc’s own analysis of how scientific socialism (the term used by Marx and Engels to describe their body of thought) was developed:

The synthesis which Marx and Engels developed was not simply meant to advance human knowledge in the abstract. Despite the relatively fortunate circumstances in which they were born, they saw human misery all around them. The lives and labour of the many were consumed in providing for the wealth and comfort of powerful minorities; the mental, cultural and physical existence of mass labouring populations was degraded in the process. People suffered, and some died, under the innumerable assaults on their dignity and well-being, their potential for full human development stunted – all for the benefit of domineering and self-satisfied profiteers and rulers. Marx and Engels perceived this reality as being built into the social system of which they were part – not just the old order of aristocratic privilege, but also the rising order of bourgeois ‘progress’. [3]

The need to unite theory and practice lay at the heart of Marxism. Gramsci argued that there should be no separation or compartmentalisation of theory and practice in a revolutionary party in which every member needed to be both a theoretician and a practising revolutionary. He suggested that:

… all members of a political party should be regarded as intellectuals and the revolutionary party must ‘work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of the populace, to give a personality to the amorphous mass element’. [4]

The practical element of Marxism has suffered two huge blows in this century. Le Blanc quite rightly lays the blame for this on reformism and Stalinism. He argues:

This disjuncture between theory and practice flows, in large measure, from an acceptance of Marx’s general analyses and a rejection of his actual revolutionary-democratic strategic orientation within the organised workers’ movement for many years. Marx’s actual political orientation was abandoned due to the ascendancy of the reformist bureaucratism of social democracy in various forms and also due to the ascendancy of the brutal authoritarianism of Stalinism in its various incarnations. [5]

The arguments against reformism and Stalinism posed by revolutionary socialists are a defence and vindication of the ideas of Marx and Engels. For example, Le Blanc refers to Trotsky who understood most clearly that his fight against Stalin was also one in which the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin were in contest. Trotsky explained in a 1937 interview in the US press, ‘In the name of a fight against "Trotskyism" the [Stalinist] bureaucracy combats and slanders the revolutionary essence of the teaching of Marx and Lenin’. [6]

Alongside reformism and Stalinism may be added a third dimension which, although not of the same weight and significance, would also undermine the central pivot of Marxist thought. This third force was academic Marxism and was in fact anticipated by Trotsky who declared, ‘The essence of Marx and Engels’ activity was that they theoretically anticipated and prepared the way for the age of proletarian revolution. If this is set aside, we end up with nothing but academic Marxism, that is, the most repulsive caricature’. [7] Le Blanc chooses Perry Anderson to describe academic Marxism

… a seclusion of theorists in universities far from the life of the proletariat in their own countries, and a contraction of theory from economics and politics into philosophy. This specialisation was accompanied by an increasing difficulty in language, whose technical barriers were a function of its distance from the masses ... The loss of any dynamic contact working class practice in turn displaced Marxist theory towards contemporary non-Marxist and idealist systems of thought, with which it now typically developed in close if contradictory symbiosis. [8]

In chapter one of From Marx to Gramsci Le Blanc also mentions some of the key figures in the 20th century who have claimed to be Marxists, such as Mao in China and Castro in Cuba. There is not the space here to discuss these in any depth but it is worth showing how Le Blanc dismisses these so called variants of Marxism in all their disguises:

The question is not whether Marx’s ideas generated an impressive array of influential and interesting perspectives. We can see that they did. Instead we must ask whether the central Marxist category of proletarian revolution – the working class rising up, smashing the bourgeois state, establishing its own political power, and maintaining that power in order to transform society along socialist lines – corresponds to some significant measure of historical reality. In the light of this question, many of the variants and interpretations of Marxism fade into the shadows. [9]

In light of this it is surprising that Le Blanc then distinguishes between Marxists (someone operating within a Marxist theoretical framework) and revolutionary Marxists (someone who embraces a particular approach to politics consistent with Marx’s own, quite specific, revolutionary political orientation). This appears to be a neat excuse for those Marxists who prefer to read books rather than encounter the arguments, debates and practical experiences of working class people. If the contention of Le Blanc’s book is that there should be no disjuncture between theory and practice, then it seems clear that Marxists should do two things. First, books are read, re-read and written to develop a theoretical understanding of the world, and second, we fight practically to make revolutionary action a reality.

Theory of capitalist development

Marx is perhaps at his best describing the dynamics, contradictions and crises of capitalism. Chapter two of this book explores a Marxist understanding of how capitalism works.

According to Marx and Engels crises do not only occur in one country but, due to the global nature of capitalism, they create global eruptions, or as Luxemburg suggests when analysing the effects of imperialism, ‘a chain of economic catastrophes: world crises, wars, revolution’ [10], in all parts of the world. The current conjecture about the globalisation of capitalism is not ‘a new discovery’. Over 150 years ago Marx and Engels saw only too clearly how capitalism spread to all corners of the globe. It is worth quoting in full Marx and Engels’ description of how capitalism spreads:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way ... The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country ... All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes ... The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations on pain of extinction to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. [11]

Le Blanc points out that the spread of capitalism across the globe was not tantamount to ‘progress’. He chooses a quotation from Rosa Luxemburg to depict the real cost of capitalist expansion. She explains:

To the capitalist economists and politicians, railroads, matches, sewerage systems and warehouses are progress and culture. Of themselves such works, grafted upon primitive conditions, are neither culture nor progress, for they are too dearly paid for with the sudden economic and cultural ruin of the peoples who must drink down the bitter cup of misery and horror of two social orders, of traditional agricultural landlordism, of supermodern, superrefined capitalist exploitation, at one and the same time. [12]

Karl Kautsky, however, in opposing Luxemburg and Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, actually thought capitalist expansion brought society closer to socialism. He suggests ‘the more a state is capitalistic on the one hand and democratic on the other, the nearer it is to socialism’. [13] Kautsky also believed that advanced capitalists would establish ‘ultra-imperialism’ which according to him was:

… a planetary economy controlled by a unified elite of scientifically trained managers who have left the national state behind and merged their separate identities in the formation of a global cartel linking all the industrially advanced centres of the world. [14]

This is a far cry from both Lenin and Luxemburg’s conception of destruction, exploitation, oppression and devastating world wars culminating from imperialist rivalries between nations. It is also in total contradiction to how Marx and Engels predicted the future. They believed that the conflict between bosses and workers across the world would end ‘either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’. [15]

Beginning from the premise that capitalism was spreading across the globe, Marx began to assess what this meant for socialist revolution. He recognised that for socialism to be successful there needed to be enough productive capacity to provide people with the goods and services that they both needed and desired. Socialism was indeed made possible because capitalism had unleashed the necessary productive powers.

On this contention, capitalist development was a necessary precondition for the rise of socialism. Marx and Engels in fact traced the different modes of production which had evolved in the West to evidence five stages of development: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism and socialism. But as Le Blanc points out, this ‘stages’ theory of development was incorrectly interpreted by Kautsky, Plekanov (’the father of Russian Marxism’), and, in the early 1900s, Lenin (who later reassessed his understanding of capitalist development) to mean that Russia would first have to go through a bourgeois revolution before it could have a socialist revolution. Le Blanc cites a letter published in a Russian journal written in 1877 by Marx to prove that Marx rejected this interpretation of his ideas. Marx did not believe that countries had to fatalistically go through these stages to get to socialism. In this letter he explicitly warned against ‘transforming my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed’. [16]

With reference to Russia, Marx showed quite bluntly how ‘stages’ were not necessary:

Did Russia have to undergo a long Western-style incubation of mechanical industry before it could make use of machinery, steamships, railways etc.? Let them also explain how they managed to introduce, in the twinkling of an eye, that whole machinery of exchange (banks, credit companies, etc.) which was the work of centuries in the West. [17]

As Le Blanc reports, the first Marxist of the 20th century to offer a clearly formulated challenge to this unilinear stages view was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky agreed with the classical Marxist view that socialism could not survive in an economically underdeveloped country, but ‘a national revolution is not a self-contained whole; it is only a link in the international chain. The international constitutes a permanent process, despite temporary declines and ebbs’. [18] Trotsky contended in 1905 that the:

Russian Revolution is a ‘bourgeois’ revolution because it sets out to liberate bourgeois society from the chains and fetters of absolutism and feudal ownership. But the principal driving force is the proletariat, and that is why, so far as its method is concerned, it is a proletarian revolution’. [19]

The global nature of capitalism meant it was possible to overcome the economic backwardness of an individual country, as long as the revolution spread across national borders: socialist revolution was possible in Russia. As Le Blanc points out, by 1917 Lenin too had drawn the same conclusions.

Theory of the labour movement

If the future was either socialist revolution or ruination for humankind the question of what workers are capable of comes to the fore. Le Blanc spends two chapters examining whether workers can develop the necessary revolutionary consciousness and practice required in order to bring a socialist revolution to fruition. He begins by arguing that economic struggles may quickly turn into political struggles. For example, as Marx explained:

The attempt to obtain forcibly from individual capitalists a shortening of the working hours in some individual factory or some individual trade by means of a strike, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, a movement forcibly to obtain an eight hour law, etc., is a political movement ... in this way a political movement grows everywhere out of the individual economic movement of the workers. [20]

Although every economic struggle had the potential to lead to political confrontation, this was under no circumstances an inevitable progression. Gramsci in particular recognised that ‘politics always lags behind economics, far behind’. [21] Even during huge social and economic crises, revolution is never automatic.

One major reason for the containment of revolutionary struggles was the hold exercised on workers by reformist trade union leaders and social democratic parties like the Labour Party in Britain. Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky each wrote about the dangers of reformism at the turn of the century when it was a relatively new phenomenon. Their insight and understanding of the reformist movement has tremendous clarity and sharpness. With reference to German reformism, Luxemburg wrote as early as 1890:

It was characteristic of party conditions at the time that the socialist parliamentarians should have the decisive word alike in theory and practice ... frittering away the energies of the labour movement ... What passed officially for Marxism became a cloak for all possible kinds of opportunism, for persistent shirking of the revolutionary class struggle, for every conceivable half measure. Thus the German social democracy, and the labour movement, the trade union movement as well, were condemned to pine away within the framework of capitalist society. [22]

Lenin argued in strong terms that to create political confrontation workers have to learn to respond with genuine revolutionary consciousness and understanding. He argued:

Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a social democratic [a revolutionary socialist] point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class consciousness unless the workers learn, from concrete and above all from topical political facts and events, to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not social democrats; for the self knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with the clear theoretical understanding – or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical understanding – of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life. [23]

This political training could not come from trade unions or reformist organisations but could only be established through a revolutionary party. For example, with reference to trade unions, Trotsky expressed, ‘Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary programme; in consequence, they cannot replace the party’. [24]

Unfortunately, Le Blanc does not give sufficient emphasis to the role of the revolutionary party. This is perhaps one of the book’s main weaknesses, since both Lenin and Trotsky in particular, paid close attention to the role of the party.

Does revolutionary Marxism have a future?

One of the book’s most interesting and thought provoking chapters is Le Blanc’s consideration of whether revolutionary Marxism has a future. To what extent, he asks, is a workers’ state as envisioned by the revolutionary Marxists a genuine possibility? Le Blanc does not attempt to skirt round the difficulties which revolutionaries have faced in their attempts to make socialist revolution a reality. He begins with a brief discussion of the immense difficulties encountered by the Bolshevik Party in Russia in the 1920s. The rise of Stalin and the consequent destruction of any chance for socialism to develop on a world scale is perhaps the greatest defeat revolutionary socialists have ever suffered. Le Blanc, however, quite correctly argues that there was nothing inevitable about the rise of Stalin and that one of the main lessons to be learnt from history is that socialism can only be realised on a world scale and not, as Stalin argued, in one country.

Alongside the hundreds and thousands of revolutionaries and activists murdered by Stalin, were those who were being slaughtered by Nazi violence. Writing in 1936, Trotsky observed that, ‘Not a revolutionary grouping in world history has yet experienced such terrible pressure’. [25] He predicted a second world war where destruction, hunger, epidemics and savagery were on a far greater scale than ever before, but he also added that revolutionary parties ‘may also be formed considerably later, in a number of years, in the midst of the ruins and the accumulation of debris following upon the victory of fascism and war’. [26]

After the Second World War, the advanced Western capitalist countries experienced an economic boom. This meant that when workers demanded an improvement in their standard of living (even in an economic boom workers often had to take strike action to win a pay rise), the system as a whole could afford to meet their demands without cutting too much into the profits of the ruling class. In these circumstances the success of reform had a conservatising effect on workers’ consciousness. This period, however, as Le Blanc acknowledges, has without question, come to an end. A consequence of an end to economic prosperity is that the road to reform is closing.

Unfortunately, Le Blanc’s final comment on whether revolutionary Marxism has a future is that ‘its project is in a shambles’. [27] He contends, ‘that there is an "unevenness" in the consciousness – and in the circumstances – of the various sectors of the working class which facilitates the fragmentation of the working class and the defeat of each of the fragments’. [28]

We are left with Le Blanc’s assessment of the contribution that Marxism has made: it is ‘one of the most comprehensive and intellectually powerful prescriptions for social change ever developed, the perspective elaborated in various ways by Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci adds up to an approach to reality and a body of thought which is irreplaceable for those wishing to come to grips with the past and the future’. [29] Yet Le Blanc closes his analysis by concluding that revolution is extremely unlikely. Those of us who are more optimistic about the prospects for revolution will read these works as they were intended, as a guide to action.


1. P. Le Blanc (ed.), From Marx to Gramsci (Humanities Press 1996), p. 8.

2. Ibid., p. x.

3. Ibid., pp. 2–3.

4. Ibid., p. 58.

5. Ibid., p. ix.

6. Ibid., p. x.

7. Ibid., p. 45.

8. Ibid., p. 13.

9. Ibid., p. 17.

10. Ibid., p. 33.

11. Ibid., p. 27.

12. Ibid., p. 32.

13. Ibid., p. 36.

14. Ibid., p. 36.

15. Ibid., p. 45.

16. Ibid., p. 29.

17. Ibid., p. 31.

18. Ibid., pp. 38–40.

19. Ibid., pp. 38–39.

20. Ibid., pp. 47–48.

21. Ibid., p. 23.

22. Ibid., p. 53.

23. Ibid., pp. 48–49.

24. Ibid., p. 50.

25. Ibid., p. 107.

26. Ibid., p. 107.

27. Ibid., p. 35.

28. Ibid., p. 119.

29. Ibid., pp. 118–119.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 14.4.2012