MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Duncan Hallas

Reprints from the International Socialist Tradition

What is “economism”?

(March 1973)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998
Originally printed in International Socialism 56, March 1973.
This text is also available here. Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

DURING THE building workers’ strike of 1972, the International Socialists (IS) raised the slogans “spread the strike” (the union leadership tried to confine it to a limited number of sites); “for an all-out national strike”; “mass picketing of all sites still working and of cement works and other sources of building material supply”; “all negotiations to include elected strike committee representatives”; “no retreat on the £30 [1] for 35 hours claim” and a number of others of a similar kind. The slogans were criticized by various people as “economism,” and that label was supposed to damn them.

Now these slogans, and similar ones in other disputes, can be right or wrong depending on the situation. It is a matter of judgment, and a sensible judgment can only be made on the basis of a serious knowledge of the industry, the state of feeling among workers at the time, the situation in the unions, the employers’ strategy and so on. But what the critics who label them as “economistic” have in mind is that they are necessarily wrong, or at least inadequate, because they are “not political.” They are “mere militancy.”

The view was expressed by a comrade in our organization that the central slogan should have been “nationalization of the building industry, the land, banks and finance houses under workers’ management.” A visitor from another continent advised us that the only correct line was to “politicize” the strike by setting up “strike support committees” consisting of members of revolutionary organizations, tenants and building workers to agitate for “expanded low-cost housing” with the aim of “mass intervention” at the Labour Party Conference in the autumn. And, of course, there were those who denounced us for not proclaiming that the building workers could not win without a “general strike to bring the Tories [2] down”!

All these proposals were incontestably political. Whether they had any connection with the realities of the situation is another matter entirely. But the general point is important. It has been raised before. Are we right to put forward concrete, immediate slogans that can actually be adopted by workers in various struggles? Or should we emphasize general “political” demands which are directed at the Labour Party or the government or whatever? What, in fact, is “economism” and are we guilty of it?

Lenin and the “economists”

At the beginning of the present century, the leaders of the Russian Marxist movement, particularly Lenin, were involved in a political fight with a tendency in the movement that came to be called “economism.” Lenin dealt very harshly with the economists. They wished, he wrote, “to obscure the class character of the struggle of the working class, weaken the struggle by a meaningless ‘recognition of society’ and reduce revolutionary Marxism to a trivial reformist trend.”

Were these economists attacked by Lenin because they raised specific “economic” slogans during strikes? Not at all. They were attacked because they opposed the attempt to create a revolutionary workers’ party. “The talk about an independent workers’ political party,” stated the economists’ manifesto (the Credo), “merely results from the transplantation of alien aims and alien achievements to our soil.” The economists were so called because they advocated “assistance to the economic struggle of the proletariat” as an alternative to building a party (which under Russian conditions meant an illegal organization).

The economists were not syndicalists, contrary to what some people seem to imagine. The French and Spanish syndicalists, the American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and others in the early years of the century were opposed to electoral political activity but were in favor of the class war and “no peace with the employers.” “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” stated the IWW program. “There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few who make up the employing class have all the good things in life ... By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

In complete contrast, the Russian economists favored political activity – so long as it was in support of the middle-class and capitalist opposition to Tsarism. “Participation in liberal opposition activity” was one of the slogans of the Credo. What the economists opposed was not political activity as such, but independent working-class political activity.

They were, in fact, a right-wing deviation in the Russian movement, corresponding to the British Fabians, the German revisionists and the French Possibilists. What all these groups really rejected was the politics of the class struggle and the aim of socialist revolution. The economists, like the revisionists, used the language of Marxism to preach rejection of Marxism. “It is difficult to imagine a more logical course,” said the Credo, “than the period of development of the labour movement from the Communist Manifesto to Bernsteinism.” Bernstein was the German revisionist leader who said “the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing to me.” Characteristically, the Credo spoke of “intolerant Marxism, negative Marxism, primitive Marxism” which should “give way to democratic Marxism.”

What then has economism to do with the debate about which slogans revolutionaries should advance in particular struggles in Britain today? It has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Modern British economists sit on the Labour front bench [3] and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) general council. [4] The use of the term to describe IS politics is plainly fraudulent unless, as is often the case, it is based on simple ignorance.

What is politics?

According to Marx, “the struggle of class against class is a political struggle”; and, according to Trotsky, “the class struggle is nothing else than the struggle for the surplus product.” (“That part of the product which goes to the worker’s own subsistence Marx calls necessary product; that part which the worker produces above this is surplus product”: Trotsky). It might appear then, at first sight, that the economic and the political struggle are essentially the same thing. But Marx distinguished between the two very clearly.

“The attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force through an eight-hour etc., law, is a political movement.”

The distinction, for Marx, lay not in the demand but in the means of achieving it. All political struggles are, in the last resort, “economic” because they are always concerned with “who gets what.” As Trotsky put it, “politics is concentrated economics.” There is no Chinese wall dividing the political and the economic, a fact that is more obvious than ever at the present time. The distinction made by Marx concerns working-class consciousness and organization. The political movement, for Marx, is the class-wide movement; “every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement” (the emphasis is Marx’s own). The economic movement, for Marx, is a sectional movement.

Thus the builders’ strike was an economic movement; the strike to free the Pentonville Five [5], a political movement, a successful non-sectional struggle to coerce the ruling class. But the origin of the Pentonville struggle was the Midland Cold Store dispute, a very economic, very sectional, dispute – an attempt to protect the jobs of registered dockers against cheaper labour. The economic struggle led, in this case, to a political struggle and generally speaking this is usually how political, class-wide actions – other than purely electoral ones – develop.

Marx summarized the matter as follows: “The political movement of the working class has, as its ultimate object, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires a previous organization of the working class developed to a certain point and arising precisely from its economic struggles” (the emphasis is my own). Of course it is necessary for the revolutionary party to take up many political questions that do not arise directly from the economic struggle (Vietnam, Ireland, women’s rights), but the core of its activity must center on economic conflicts.

Slogans are not magic

In the great majority of cases, economic (sectional) struggles do not give rise to political (class-wide) struggles, at any rate in any immediate sense, although, of course, they have their effect on working-class consciousness. Occasionally sectional struggles do spill over into political ones. What makes the difference?

One familiar answer is – leadership. A correct leadership which issues the correct slogans at the correct time will carry the movement forward. Of course, in an important sense, this is true but it is also a one-sided approach. The question of leadership cannot be considered separately from working-class consciousness. And this, in turn, depends upon the general economic, and therefore political, situation; upon the heritage of the past which, as Marx said, presses down upon the brains of the living; upon the balance of power in the institutions of the workers’ movement (unions, parties) which can lag behind, sometimes far behind, the consciousness of sections of workers; and upon other considerations besides.

In short, the development of a revolutionary Marxist leadership in the workers’ movement and the development of class consciousness are two sides of the same coin. The key questions for Marxists are: What stage are we at? What is the next step? As soon as these questions are put the answers are clear. We are at the stage of fighting on the margins of the movement for influence and leadership. The next step is the expansion of that fight into ever broader sections.

There is no magic in slogans. It is not only a question of what is said. It is, above all, a question of who says it. Three ex-students in a back room in Billericay can issue a manifesto against the incomes policy [6] fraud with an absolutely correct analysis and absolutely correct slogans and demands. It will have exactly the same effect as the revolutionary manifesto issued at the time of the great French Revolution, in the name of “the people of England,” by the three tailors of Tooley Street. That is to say, it will have no effect at all. The identical platform issued by the [shop] stewards of Ford’s, Dagenham or British Leyland, Longbridge [7] may have a considerable effect.

How do revolutionary socialists get into the positions, gain the authority, that commands a hearing? By serious, active and persistent struggle on those issues that actually concern their fellow workers, maintained consistently over time. And these issues will be economic issues: issues of conditions, bonuses, gradings, wage rates and, at one remove, union politics. Which means that these militants – and the organizations of which they are part – must have clear answers to all sorts of sectional problems, must be able to give a better, more successful, lead on the concrete, day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues, than their non-revolutionary fellows.

The nationalization slogan

The central political question today is the smashing of the government’s incomes policy, thus bringing down the government. This political struggle can be carried through only on the basis, in the first place, of economic struggles, of sectional struggles. No magical general slogans can replace clear, realistic and concrete leadership in these sectional struggles. The central slogans have to arise from these and generalize them.

Is “nationalize the whatever” appropriate here? It’s obviously not much use in the mines or steel! [8] It may have value in certain cases, but it cannot possibly be central in most struggles because it is a propaganda slogan directed, in an operational sense, at the Labour Party or the government which is irrelevant to the major struggle against incomes policy. That struggle, as pretty well every trade unionist knows, takes place in “public” and “private” sectors alike.

* * *


1. About $75 in 1973.

2. The British Conservative Party.

3. “Labour front bench” refers to the Labour party leaders who sit in British Parliament.

4. The TUC is the English equivalent of the AFL-CIO. The general council is the equivalent of the AFL-CIO executive board.

5. The Pentonville Five were a group of striking union dockers who were arrested in 1972 by the Tory government for engaging in illegal secondary picketing. Mass protest forced the government to release them.

6. “Incomes policy” was an attempt by the Tory government to impose wage controls on various industries.

7. Ford’s, Dagenham and British Leyland, Longbridge are auto factories.

8. At the time, the mining and steel industries in Britain were already nationalized.

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