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Ken Tarbuck

The Making of Revolutionaries: Cadre or Sect

(Summer 1968)

From Bulletin of Marxist Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1, Summer 1968.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Minor spelling errors have been corrected without indication.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The present time is a very disturbing one for Marxists in Britain, it is full of questions and many seem imponderable. The election of the Labour government to office has once again thrown both the Social-Democratic left and the Marxist movement into a state of confusion and tension. At a time when advances for socialism seemingly could be made, all is inverted, stood on its head. In a period of acute crisis for British capitalism Marxists stand unarmed, without the means to intervene and not knowing how to. Only the most marginal victories are being won by the left, if any are being won at all. The question therefore poses itself very sharply – ‘Why is this?’ It is the purpose of this essay to examine and explore certain facets of this question, not to attempt to give definitive answers – few exist in the abstract.

Two other points should be made. Firstly, this essay makes no attempt to argue the need for a revolutionary Marxist party, this is assumed. Secondly, it does not deal with the more general or objective factors relating to the failure of such a party to emerge in Britain. There have been many such discussions and I have not attempted to pass any judgement on them.

First Approximations

Among those who have attempted to grapple with the present situation have been the New Left Review editorial team. All credit must go to them for their efforts over the past few years in trying to break out of the vicious circle that British Marxists are in. With some remarkable insights and a great élan they have attempted to unlock the present. It is not to their discredit that they have not entirely succeeded, and they would not claim to have done so. However, it is up to those who disagree with certain aspects of their work to take up the issues and discuss them.

To help clarify matters I intend to carry out a part of the discussion around the article by Perry Anderson entitled Problems of Socialist Strategy. [1]

Let us begin with a quotation from this article:

Two strategic models have dominated our history, and divided the socialist movement in Europe from the turn of the century to our time. The momentous schism between Social-Democracy and Communism directly derives from them. They can be called the parliamentary and the insurrectionary roads to socialism. (p. 233)

Perry Anderson posits these two paths as being the basic difference within the socialist movement, and much of his analysis seems to be grounded on this one point. Unfortunately this cannot be accepted as a tenable thesis. The division that runs deep within the labour movement, not only in Britain but also internationally, is not predicated upon such a simplistic dichotomy. The real and fundamental difference is related to the need, or otherwise, for a thoroughgoing and basic change within society. That is, whether as socialists we want to abolish wage slavery and its accompanying alienation, and establish a free human society in which man is truly his own master and not the adjunct of capital. If this was not immediately apparent before 1945 (and I would argue that it was) then it has become increasingly so since. With the advent of relatively full employment and the amelioration of certain aspects of poverty, the real and substantive differences between reformists and revolutionaries has become increasingly clear. That this is not apparent to many is an indication of the vulgar economic materialism that passes for Marxism in many quarters, not least amongst the bourgeois ‘Marxologists’. Those who want to smooth down rough edges, establish ‘good industrial relations’, etc, etc, are the reformists. Those who want to abolish industrial relations and replace them with human relations are the socialists, the revolutionaries.

This, above all, is the essence of the dispute, not insurrectionary versus parliamentary roads. Not that such disputes are unimportant, on the contrary, they sometimes become crucial. But at this point of time to allow oneself to get bogged down in what would be an essentially abstract dispute would be fruitless. No one who considers themselves to be Marxist could quibble over the question of violence. We do not live in an age of peace, the violence of imperialism is endemic, it cannot survive without it. However, one must realise that such disputes are secondary and subordinate to the key question – ‘Do we reform capitalism or do we build socialism?’ Moreover, a dispute over methods very often only serves to cover a dispute over aims.

Even before 1914 this was a subject of controversy within the labour movement, when Bernstein wrote his Evolutionary Socialism. Rosa Luxemburg saw this distinction clearly in 1900 when she wrote:

... the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement from the bourgeois democracy and bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order – the question of ‘Reform or Revolution?’ as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for the Social-Democracy the question: ‘To be or not to be?’ In the controversy with Bernstein and his followers, everybody in the party ought to understand clearly it is not a question of this or that method of struggle, or of the use of this or that set of tactics, but the very existence of the Social-Democratic movement. (Social Reform or Revolution?) [2]

These words still hold true today over half a century later, only perhaps more so.

The year 1917 and the October revolution drew a line – an indelible one – through the labour movement. It true that old habits are hard to shake off, for example, German Social-Democracy only finally sloughed off the vestiges of its Marxism in the late 1950s. But the truth was that Bernstein only articulated existing practice when he began his attack, as the First World War revealed. In the same way the struggle in the Labour Party over the attempted revision of Clause Four of the constitution saw a defeat for Gaitskell, so in Germany earlier in the century Kautsky came out to defend the prevailing orthodoxy and won. In neither case was the victory real or enduring, both parties today are open proponents of the mixed economy and the rule of market economics, that is, both parties openly proclaim that they only want to reform capitalism, that is, if they deign to mention such an ‘outmoded’ expression. To pose the question as did Perry Anderson is to have a wholly pre-1914 conception of Social-Democracy, and is to try to grapple with ghosts of those long since departed.

The Party

Centralism Versus Democracy? Following through this line of thought Perry Anderson examines the question of the role of the party in the struggle for socialism. True, this is done obliquely, rather than directly, nevertheless there does emerge a concept of the Leninist party that is erroneous. Unless this problem is cleared up no discussion on socialist strategy can be meaningful.

What does Anderson say?

For Lenin, the road to socialism was short but sheer: it required the armed insurrection of the proletariat against the established state, its capture and destruction. (p. 224)

Leninism has been ... a success in its own terms and context. It won power in Russia, carried out the expropriation of capitalism and totally transformed the economy and society of the largest country in Europe ... What was the secret of this success? The answer is surely this: Leninism was almost perfectly adapted to the specific conditions of its time and place. It is precisely in backward inchoate societies, dominated by scarcity and integrated by the state, that such a strategy has its meaning. (pp. 227–28, emphasis in original)

But its very adaption to its Eastern environment, which has been the secret of its success, radically dis-adapts it from the Western milieu where capitalism remains supreme today. For the societies of Western Europe constitute a wholly different universe from those of Eastern Europe ... For the moment it is important to emphasise that a Leninist strategy in the West is fundamentally regressive: it threatens to destroy a vital historical creation ... (p. 230, emphasis in original)

What is this heritage that Leninism allegedly threatens? Without doubt Perry Anderson means liberal-democracy, as a reading of his essay indicates. I think he is completely mistaken in this assumption; and in also assuming that liberal-democracy is the pattern for Western Europe. At the time that he wrote the essay it would have only been necessary to point to Spain and Portugal to show the error of such an assertion. Moreover, the France of De Gaulle is not a liberal-democracy, but rather an authoritarian regime with electoral plumage. Western Germany cannot be blessed with the accolade either, since the Communist Party is legally banned. And of course since the essay was written the military regime has been installed in Greece, and on the bones of a regime it would have been difficult to describe as liberal-democracy. The universe of liberal-democracy becomes contracted under examination.

Does this mean there is no validity in Anderson’s contention and concern? Yes, there is validity, in the sense that no Marxist would wish for any diminution of the civil and political liberties that have been won within certain countries. Therefore we can share his concern, insofar as it is legitimate. However, it would be exceedingly naive not to understand that such liberties are conditional and somewhat precarious. One has only to look at the mounting attack on the trades unions here in Britain to understand this. And equally the threat to radicals and revolutionaries implied in the Race Relations Act, for example, the imprisonment of Michael X.

The answer to the question must be ‘no’, in the sense that Leninism as such is not and never was a threat to civil liberty or the working class. To attempt to equate the Stalinist police regimes with Leninism is to fall into the same trap as many bourgeois liberals have done. For them the terror directed against counter-revolutionary White Guards was the same as the terror of the Stalinist bureaucracy against the Bolshevik Old Guard. The whole spirit and ethos of Leninism is directly antithetical to any suppression of liberty, indeed it was directed towards the release of enthusiasm and tremendous self-activity. Any reading of State and Revolution should clear this matter up because Lenin there visualised a workers’ state which was only a semi-state, one that was beginning to prepare the ground for its own demise.

A further error creeps into Perry Anderson’s explanation of Leninism, he seems to suggest that Lenin’s concept of the party was predicated on the fact of Russia’s backwardness and the autocracy of the Tsarist regime. This is misleading and blurs the issue. It is true that the specific conditions that Lenin visualised, and created, the Bolshevik Party under were conditions of repression. Therefore, Lenin emphasised certain features because of these particular conditions, but it is an error to construe certain facets as the whole of Leninism. In this context we should also note that Gramsci – that most neglected of Marxists – is also misunderstood because he wrote under conditions of Fascist dictatorship. Neither Lenin or Gramsci predicated their views of the party on these conditions of backward economies or autocracy. Rather the leitmotif of their views is to be found in their struggle against economism and theories of spontaneity, and their emphasis of the role of consciousness. This is the inner logic, core and historic value of their contribution. The role of consciousness assumes tremendous significance in the struggle to create a Marxist party. Those who today demote the role of the conscious elements within the working class could do well to ponder these words of Lenin:

Any belittling of the role of ‘the conscious element’, of the role of Social-Democracy, means ipso facto (quite irrespective of whether the belittler intends it or not) the strengthening of the influence of the bourgeois ideology upon the workers. All those who talk about ‘overestimating the importance of ideology’, about exaggerating the role of the conscious element, etc, imagine that the purely workers’ movement by itself can and will work out an independent ideology for itself, if only workers ‘tear their fate from the hands of the leaders’ ... the spontaneous development of the labour movement leads precisely to its subordination to the bourgeois ideology ..., because a spontaneous labour movement is trade unionism ...

This does not mean, of course, that the workers do not participate in working it [the ideology] out. But they participate not as workers but as theorists of socialism, Proudons or Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when, and in so far as, they succeed to a greater or lesser extent in acquiring the knowledge of their age and in advancing this knowledge. And in order that working men may succeed in this more often, it is necessary to concern oneself as far as possible with raising the level of consciousness of the workers in general; it is necessary that the workers should not confine themselves to artificially restricted limits of ‘literature for workers’, but should learn more and more to master the general literature. It would be even more correct to say confined instead of ‘confine themselves’, because workers themselves read and want to read everything that is written for the intelligentsia, and some (bad) intellectuals think that ‘for the workers’ it is sufficient to tell them about factory conditions and chew over and over again what has long been known. (What Is To Be Done?, pp. 70–71, emphasis in original) [3]

Two very important points emerge from this. Firstly, the spontaneous drives of the working class are only capable of producing trade-union consciousness. Yet trade unions, by their very nature, are an expression of the division within existing society between capital and labour; and are a recognition of this division. Capitalist commodity production here, it must be emphasised, is not a given set of techniques but a set of social relations, therefore any attempt to overcome them must of necessity be a partial withdrawal from these relations. Trade unions on the contrary must take them as given and seek to obtain a better bargain for the sellers of labour, and only by a tacit or open acknowledgement of these relations do they carry out their functions as trade unions. This trade-union mentality is not confined to narrow trade-union affairs, on the contrary, it spills over, pervades and dominates the whole labour movement. Its political expression is reformism. Therefore, secondly the question of the role of intellectuals becomes a key one. These intellectuals must bring socialist consciousness into the working class. But, these intellectuals must be of a new type. One of the misunderstandings current on this point is that such intellectuals must of necessity come from the traditional intelligentsia. It is true that initially members of the intelligentsia can and do play a vital role in bringing conscious socialist theory into the ranks of the working class; and as the Petőfi circle of Budapest showed in Hungary in 1956, they can act as a catalysing agent at times of crisis. Moreover, note what Lenin said above. Such intellectuals ‘of the new type’ must by definition have broken with bourgeois ideology in all its forms, but they can equally come from the ranks of the working class as from the ranks of the intelligentsia. Moreover, without these intellectuals being drawn from the ranks of the working class any attempts at creating a vanguard solely from the intelligentsia will end in ‘intellectualism’ of the worst kind. Those who think that Lenin had any great affection for intellectuals or accorded them some special place should familiarise themselves with One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, it is littered with withering phrases about ‘whining intellectuals’, ‘unstable elements’, etc., etc. These should be understood in the class context in which they are used. Lenin was using the term intellectuals here as a social description indicating the general characteristics that intellectuals displayed as a social class.

The role of the intellectuals of the new type is not to satisfy their own ego or literary ambitions, but to challenge concretely the ideological dominance of the bourgeoisie and to prepare the instrument for its demise. Gramsci points this out when he says:

Marxism does not seek to sustain ‘simple people’ in their primitive philosophy of common sense, but instead to lead them to a higher view of life. If it asserts the need for contact between intellectual and the simple people it does so, not in order to limit scientific activity and maintain unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to build an intellectual-moral bloc which makes possible the progress of the masses and not only for a few groups of intellectuals. (The Modern Prince, p. 66)

Herein is the significance of the concept of the intellectuals of the new type. Members of the intelligentsia and the working class have to be remade into revolutionary intellectuals. And this re-moulding is not a process carried out on ‘inert’ material, it has nothing in common with the ‘brainwashing’ so beloved of the vulgar Marxologists. It is a process that can only succeed to the extent that the individual participates and furthers it.

What Are Cadres? I want now to pose this question – What do we mean when we speak about Marxist cadres? If the new type of intellectuals are the cadres of a Marxist party, what has been the practice of all those groups on the left that claimed to be creating cadres?

Gramsci lays down three essential elements for building a Marxist party, they are:

i) A widespread element of common, average men, whose participation is provided by discipline and faith, not by creative and highly organisational spirit. Without these the party would not exist, it is true, but it is also true that the party would not exist ‘only’ with these. They are a force as far as there is someone who centralises, organises, disciplines them, and in the absence of this force they would break up and cancel each other out in scattered impotence.

ii) The principal cohesive element, which centralises in the national field, which render effective and powerful the totality of forces which left to themselves would count for nothing or very little, this element is endowed with a highly cohesive, centralising and disciplinary power which is also, perhaps because of this, inventive (if what is meant is ‘inventive’ in a certain direction according to certain lines of forces, certain perspectives or certain premises). It is also true that this element alone would not form a party, but it would do so more than the first element. They would be generals without an army, but in reality it is easier to create an army than to create generals ...

iii) A middle element, which links the first element with the second and puts them into contact, not only ‘physically’ but also morally and intellectually ... (The Modern Prince, pp. 49–50)

Let us now look at my question in the light of what Gramsci says. It is my contention that all the present groups of the revolutionary left in Britain have up to now been intent on producing the third element, yet they have little or none of the second. Moreover, it has to be understood that a party can only emerge from a movement, one that embraces wider and more heterogeneous elements than a party.

Concretely this has meant that it is activists or agitators that have been produced, and not cadres or intellectuals of the new type. Gramsci, here, has refined Lenin and brought this question into a closer focus. Looking at the question from this standpoint one can see that the quest to build a revolutionary party by many small groups has foundered to a large extent because of a lack of understanding of this key question (there are other factors and some are discussed later). It may be objected that the Communist Party has had (relatively) large numbers of intellectuals within its ranks, this is true and these were largely from the intelligentsia. However, at no time have these been in any position fundamentally to influence or guide the party, even if they so desired. Moreover, most of them have been in the grip of Stalinist orthodoxy and because of this were mental cripples. Those that broke with the CP in the middle 1950s have, in the main, been destroyed as Marxist cadres, either dropping into passivity or – in reaction to Stalinist orthodoxy – become enamoured with populism. (A certain small segment of this generation having taken their intellect out of pawn from King Street went with all due haste to Clapham High Street, unfortunately for them with similar results to their previous visit to ‘uncle’.) [4]

No other group on the Marxist left has collected any appreciable number of intellectuals, either from the intelligentsia or the working class. This is not surprising since none of these groups have the concept of building Marxist cadres in the Leninist or Gramscian sense.

Indeed one of the characteristics of all these groups is that they are anti-intellectual in the ‘best’ British tradition. Because of this they are all to some extent prisoners of the corporative consciousness of the working class, deferring to it and taking it as the level of their departure. In this they are fatally mistaken. Marxists cannot start at the level of consciousness of the working class, they must be the bearers of the highest and most advanced theory and consciousness. Certainly any Marxist must take cognisance of the level of consciousness of the mass of the people, otherwise one falls into the crassest voluntarism. However, this does not mean that one accepts this level. It is the acceptance of this level that has meant in practice that all the Marxist groups have been content to ‘produce’ the third element of Gramsci. Trotsky was well aware of this problem when he wrote: ‘A pedagogical adaption to the more backward layers of the proletariat must not become transformed into a political adaption to the conservative bureaucracy of the trade unions.’ (In Defence of Marxism, p. 146) [5] No doubt many will be offended by my saying this, and there will perhaps be cries of ‘prove it’. The answer is all around you, unfortunately in a negative form. Where is the cadre that should be challenging Wilson’s government, or that has even cracked the shell of the British working class’s corporate world? To ask the question is to answer it. And sad to say even our ‘generals’ of the left are almost indistinguishable from the army.

Now whilst it is true that the revolutionary party creates intellectuals, it is only done on an expanded basis. Initially it is the intellectuals who create the party, even if this is only an embryo party. They constitute the grain of sand around which the pearl forms. Therefore the most critical task is to assemble this grain of sand. This cannot be done on an activist basis alone, it can only be done on the basis of ideas, that is, of theory. But this theory must be expounded in practice, and at a number of levels, not in a single-issue campaign. The ‘mere’ literary exposition of theory leads to intellectualism. This may sound as though what is being said is that ‘the chicken and the egg’ arrive simultaneously, but this is not so. One of the truisms of the Marxist movement is that there should be unity of theory and practice. This is a necessary and valid truism, nevertheless the danger is that activism is equated with practice, and theory becomes subordinated to activity. When this happens theory becomes a badge, an adornment, a suit of clothes, which can be changed to fit the mood. Theory then becomes ex post a justification for practice or has no relation to it. However, for Marxists theory is not something that is empirically made up as we go along, past experience provides an approximation which we abstract and turn into theory and this should guide our present practice. The badge approach to theory is a bowing to the division of labour imposed by class society. This is because intellectual activities are not seen as activities as such, but as something that takes place outside of the collective. There arises in small political groups the practice of each having its own ‘theorist’ who hands down the ‘line’. It does not occur to such leaders that a major part of their task is to train people to replace them.

For Marxists, within the concept of practice is embodied theory, therefore the truism ‘unity of theory and practice’ can become a barrier to our understanding of this. Let me elaborate this point a little. Was Marx theorising or practising when he was writing Capital? Were Castro and Che practising or theorising when they landed from the Granma? These are, of course, dramatic examples, and few of us can aspire to reach such historical proportions; yet unless we envisage a revolutionary party in this way we do not have the perspective of revolutionaries. Therefore, it is very necessary that in the process of gathering the ‘grain of sand’ a vulgar interpretation is not given to the word activity. Practice must be understood as encompassing many, many things. It must be a genuine praxis.

Which Crisis of Leadership? One of the factors that has contributed towards an activist concept of cadres has been the phrase ‘the working class suffers from a crisis of leadership’. What is understood by this, and what should be understood by it? A mechanical and undialectical application of this idea implies that the working class is straining at the leash, only waiting for the call to revolution or on a more mundane level only waiting for the right charismatic leader to speak at a Labour Party conference to rout the demon Wilson. Now it is true that at certain times this can be and has been correct because the mass of the working class has moved further and faster than its existing leadership, and at such times these leaders become an absolute brake. The Spanish Civil War was one example of such a situation. But such situations are rare, pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situations do not come round like the date on the calendar in orderly succession to be waited for with patience.

Such situations have to be ‘made’, not in the sense of exploiting favourable situations, that is an elementary task for Marxists. No, revolutions have to be ‘made’ by a process that stretches far back beyond particular situations.

Yet even in ‘normal’ times this crisis of leadership does exist. This particular crisis manifests itself at these times by the reformist leadership accurately reflecting the false consciousness of the masses. Seen in this way it is not the reformist leaders who have to be ‘exposed’, rather it is the corporate consciousness of the working class (needless to say the reformists need to be opposed tooth and nail). But our task as Marxists is not to denounce reformists as though the working class had a clear-sighted vision of socialism which was being impaired by using reformist spectacles. Rather it is our task to convince the working class of its ‘defective’ eyesight. Only in the process of doing this does the question of using Marxist ‘spectacles’ arise. But this should not be seen as a series of stages, both tasks have to be carried out simultaneously.

If one does not understand this process one falls into a world of demonology and good men versus bad men. This is the world of the super-voluntarist who thinks that if only he can blow his trumpet loud enough the walls of reformist Jericho will fall down.

The crisis of leadership is much more complex, pervasive and subtle, resting on the mystification engendered by bourgeois ideology. To combat this much more than activism is required, there has to be an ideological assault on the institutions that mediate it.

The dialectical novelty of the crisis of leadership is that it besets all groups and organisations of the working class. Each of these reveals an inner dynamic and rhythm of development which – unless it is able to burst asunder the integument of bourgeois hegemony – reaches an apogee and then declines, leaving it subject to that which it set out to destroy. This subjection may take many forms, each of them expresses a failure to grapple with the reality in which they exist, and an adaption to the false consciousness of that reality.

Sects and Sectarianism: Much of the foregoing helps to explain why, instead of Marxist cadres being created, there has been a proliferation of sects. Most of the existing groups started their life as a fraction [6] within an already existing organisation. This gives us part of the reason for the subsequent evolution.

A fraction is a grouping that arises within a party or group often over a single issue and is turned inwards hoping to achieve a clear-cut ideological resolution of that issue. For this reason a fraction should be considered to be a temporary and short-lived formation. Initially there is no counterposing of an entire programme to that of the existing formation. The issues are seen as being the correction of an error of tactics or strategy, or even merely the consistent and energetic application of an existing programme.

The party, in contrast, sets out to group within its ranks all those who subscribe to its programme, but at the same time allows wide divergences of opinion on tactics and strategy, always with the proviso that the dissentients should subordinate themselves in activity to the majority decisions. This in no way demands of the dissentients that they should renounce their views, merely that they accept majority decisions and work in accordance with them. But a fraction has a different internal regime to that of the party. Because of the narrow basis for its existence it draws the dividing line between members and non-members with hair-line precision, even transitory tactical differences can make it impossible to coexist within the same fraction. For example if there arises a difference within a party over a tactical orientation, for example, whether an election should be boycotted or not, then two fractions may arise and many in the party may be undecided. Obviously the question of adherence to one of the fractions is a very clear-cut matter, any wavering immediately puts one outside of the fraction. There is no need for a formal decision in that situation, the doubter is just dropped from the fraction, which itself may not be a formal one.

Very few parties start out in life as such, they normally begin as fractions within existing organisations. But such fractions become parties in the process of political struggle; and because of this it is an objective fact, and not their own subjective view of themselves, which makes them parties.

A sect is usually a fraction that has failed to become a party, and has maintained the internal life of a fraction. That discipline which is necessary for an internal struggle is carried over into its independent existence and because of this it becomes burdensome and repulsive as the sect takes shape. The specific features usually take the form of near hysteria to the raising of any meaningful criticisms (not to be confused with the type of ‘self-criticism’ sometimes practised) of the strategy or tactics being pursued. Because at this stage the initial reasons for the sect’s existence (in reality as a fraction) has become ossified into dogma, they manifest violent reactions to any challenge. To be present at such confrontations is to witness a most bizarre scene. The critics will be subjected to such treatment as one would think only the class enemy deserves. In such an emotionally-charged atmosphere nearly all differences can lead, and usually do, to an eventual split or the expulsion of the minority opinion.

Such situations and results have little to do with the personalities involved. Certainly, the personal characteristics displayed can exacerbate or moderate the clash, but only to a degree. The basic response is structured within the subordinated and alienated life of the sect. Even those fractions which consciously set out not to perpetuate the regime of a fraction, and hence to slide into a sect existence, will fall prey to this condition if they fail to transform themselves into parties or embryo parties. Good intentions are not enough.

Each fraction announces itself to the world by flourishing certain characteristics that proclaim its identity. At its inception these may be valid and legitimate weapons to free itself from a past that had acted as a brake. The transformation into a sect, which may be a long or short period of time, witnesses a transmogrification of these points, characteristics or attributes into totems or fetishes. The closer any criticisms come to these totems the more violent is likely to be the reaction. This, I believe, goes some way to explain that strange phenomena of the left, that is, the closer two groups appear to be in programme the more bitter the hostility displayed, either publically or privately, to each other. Lest anyone feel smug, let me point out that no group or organisation, no matter how large, is immune from this process. Nor has it ever been known for a sectarian to recognise himself in the mirror. Only life and political activity can say, after the event, which is and which is not a sect.

What Should We Do?

Any group or party that sets out to be revolutionary must break out of the corporate shell of the working class and adopt an hegemonic, worldwide vision of reality. Only conscious elements can do this, not merely conscious of the poverty, misery and inequalities of capitalism and imperialism, this consciousness must also incorporate knowledge of the precise ways in which bourgeois hegemony is exercised; not merely in the general sense but in the particular and concrete conditions of a given society. Although Marxism arms one with a universal and hegemonic viewpoint, this, if it is to be transformed into an instrument of liberation, must be applied in the particular situation one is confronted with. It is not sufficient to understand that capitalism is an irrational and contradictory society, one must know how and where these irrationalities and contradictions exhibit themselves within any particular society. The most general contradiction in any capitalist society is that between labour and capital. However, one must also understand certain structures within any society gain a certain relative autonomy. Because of this autonomy the basic and determinant contradiction may well express itself through the apparent over-determination of subsidiary contradictions. It is by an evaluation of these relatively autonomous structures and their relationship to the basic contradiction within society that Marxists are able to develop a programmatic perspective.

The hegemony of the British bourgeoisie is mainly, but not wholly, maintained by the mystification of the realities of the world we live in. This, at a vulgar level, takes the form of common sense and Galbraith’s ‘conventional wisdom’. Therefore, the false consciousness that we speak of is not something that appears to have been imposed from outside of the individual, but rather it manifests itself as internalised norms, etc. As such – because they are unconsciously imbibed – they present themselves as spontaneous expressions of ‘human nature’. This process is continually reinforced by the manipulation of the means of communication. This mystification is mediated by intellectuals of all ranks, who operate in the educational system, the press, television and radio, etc. In present-day conditions the organs of repression, which some Marxists unfortunately see as being the main or only instrument of bourgeois hegemony, are subordinated in their role. They only are brought into play when other means have failed to produce the required results. This is not to say that these organs are unimportant, or that they can be dismissed, on the contrary it is likely that they will be used more in the coming period than has been the case during the last 20 years or so. There has certainly been a weakening of the fear of those in authority since 1945, and this is indicated in a number of ways. Perhaps the most commented-on aspect is the attitude of workers to authority within the factories, but this is only a particular expression of a more general phenomenon. But this phenomenon is at best inchoate, and has yet to find a generalised positive expression; common sense still rules the mental universe of the working class. Such a situation is no doubt irritating for the ‘establishment’ and even at times worrying, but as yet not decisively so. Such situations are manifestations of the general crisis of British capitalism, which has been chronic since 1945, and the particular conditions relating to full employment. Such a crisis can drag on for decades, as Gramsci points out, unless a cohesive and well-organised force appears to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class.

Régis Debray, in his book Revolution in the Revolution, makes the point that it is important to strike at the enemy’s élite troops, because they are the key element in holding all the forces together. The question for us here in Britain is – Who are our enemy’s élite troops? I have pointed out that the mystification process is mediated via the intelligentsia, and this group constitutes the ‘élite troops’ of the British bourgeoisie. This stratum carries out this role in a very concrete manner, at many levels of society, but it is in the higher reaches of the educational system, communications system and industry that it constitutes a real caste. It is in the sphere of the production of these intellectuals that the state plays an important role. It is important in this context to understand why there is such hostility displayed towards those students who demand a voice and vote in the running of institutions of higher learning. This area of life is one of extreme sensitivity for the dominance of bourgeois ideology.

The aim of Marxists in this situation must be the creation of cadres (intellectuals of the new type) drawn both from the working class and the intelligentsia who will ‘attack’ this élite corps. Such an attack must not only have the element of destruction but also one of positive affirmation. To do this there must be a separation, dividing lines must be very sharply drawn. A weak cadre cannot afford to enter alliances, because it will be absorbed by its allies. This weakness does not only refer to numbers but also to ideological quality. Only in irreconcilable struggle can Marxist cadres be gathered and maintained. Lenin said: ‘... we declare that before we can unite and in order that we may unite, we must first draw firm and definite lines of demarcation.’ (What Is To Be Done?, p. 56) [7] Note the phrase ‘and in order that we may unite’, this process of demarcation does not mean a withdrawal into isolation and literary Marxism, it means that one must be very clear on who is an ally, who is a cadre and who must be opposed. All alliances seen from this point of view must have the aim of enlarging the numbers and influence of the Marxist cadre. But for this to take place there must be a period of separation. In practice, here in Britain this means that the Marxist cadres must be ideologically formed in opposition to and outside of the Social-Democratic milieu. This is not to be construed as a rejection of the need for Marxist cadres to participate in the labour movement as we find it. But one cannot properly carry out the ideological struggle necessary by only using Aesopian language or looking over one’s shoulder in fear of expulsion.

The key areas for the gathering of the ‘grain of sand’ (not to be confused with the building of a mass movement) must be where the material is most likely to be found, and these are in the educational system and the rank-and-file activities of the working class. These areas are very sensitive. Within the educational system students represent a volatile and impressionable segment of society, because of their age and the fact that they are in the process of equipping themselves with certain techniques. Many of them today are seeing themselves as workers who have to fight for better wages and conditions. It is no accident that in an age of mass technology the intellectuals are becoming proletarianised. Far from becoming a substitute for the working class they are becoming a part of it as never before. The rank-and-file militants on the other hand represent the best and most active section of the working class. Because of their experiences these militants have begun to react to the bureaucracy in the trade unions. Such people must be gathered and have their ideological vision widened and a fruitful interaction brought about.

Marxists should not allow the enemy to dictate the field of action, when this happens one can be sure that it is done because the enemy feels confident of victory. Bourgeois morality must be used and transgressed. All of the existing Marxist groups, in practice, accept the dictation of the field of action by the bourgeoisie. In doing so they accept their subordination. The monopolist control of the means of communication is accepted, and Marxists only participate on such conditions as usually to emasculate their message. What are needed are open and unfettered means of communication which are outside the present monopolist system.

Régis Debray analyses the idea of the revolutionary foco within the context of Latin America. Briefly, the foco implies that the cadres choose their own field of battle away from the ruling-class strongholds and concentration of fire-power of the cadres so that the superiority of the enemy is lessened and possibly overcome. However, it should be clear that such focos are not intended to defeat the enemy on a military level but rather to act as sparks that set the inflammable material surrounding them alight. Is there a lesson for us here? I think so. Firstly, in the first stages of gathering together a cadre there must be a concentration of the few available people. Secondly, a concentration enlarges the ‘fire-power’ of such a cadre. Given sufficient concentration there is a qualitative enlargement of the abilities of all the component members. In a period of ‘social peace’ the spreading of cadres over large areas, either geographically or in spheres of activity, inevitably leads to a dilution of effort and effectiveness. The concentration must not be seen as being for the cadres’ comfort and mutual solace, it is for its external effects in acting as a polarising force that it must be undertaken.

The process of forming such an initial cadre will not be an easy or short task, it can only be achieved by a continuous and conscious effort of will. If this sounds like voluntarism, the answer is that all Marxist activity at this period has a large element of this, without it we remain captives of ‘common sense’. Gramsci makes the point:

Too much (and therefore superficial and mechanical) political realism often leads to the assertion that the man of state must only work within the sphere of ‘effective reality’, not interest himself in ‘what should be’ but only in ‘what is’. This would mean that the man of state must have no perspective longer than his nose.

Engels’ phrase ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’ cannot be understood in a passive way, recognition here implies an active and creative participation in the making of that freedom. In this way, to have a perspective or knowledge of the future implies action that is incorporated in it. If one refuses to take positive and meaningful action, one remains passive in the face of the objectivity that dominates instead of being transformed and transcended by revolutionary praxis. In the sphere of building a Marxist cadre this means that old, subordinate and anti-intellectualist methods have to be replaced. The cadre will not be built by drawing a large periphery around an indeterminate centre, but like a pearl which is built up layer by layer around a hard core. It is because the process must evolve in this way that a confrontation with bourgeois ideology must take place in all spheres. Lenin made this point when he said: ‘In order to bring the worker political knowledge, Social-Democrats must go into all classes of the population, must send out units of their army in all directions.’ (What Is To Be Done?, p. 102) [8]

All directions means in all spheres of life, and that Marxists do not only concern themselves with the problems of the working class but with all the oppressed. It is only by creating a mirror of the whole society that the working class can perceive itself. The Marxist critique must be articulated at all levels of society, in history, science, economics, sociology, art, sport, etc., etc. Any such critique must be creative, not formalised or ritualised. Lenin said that Marxists have to impart a very clear idea of the totality of the universe we inhabit:

And this ‘clear idea’ cannot be obtained from any book. It can only be supplied by vivid pictures and arraignments compiled on the basis of fresh evidence of what is happening around us at a given moment, of what everyone is talking, in his own way, or at least whispering about, of what is expressed in such and such events, such and such figures, such and such court judgements, etc., etc. These all-embracing political arraignments are a necessary and fundamental condition for educating the masses in revolutionary activity. (What Is To Be Done?, pp. 95–96) [9]

Unless one starts from this premise then one loses one’s way, for a cadre – even a ‘grain of sand’ – does not start its activities from an abstract and remote plane, but from the very real and material prerequisites that already exist; even though at times it is necessary to raise these to the level of abstraction to reveal their inner content. Such a critique can only start with the material at hand both objectively and subjectively, that is, it is not possible to cover the whole range of possibilities initially. First and foremost a Marxist cadre must be consistently oriented towards the working class. The struggle against bourgeois ideology must be fought in that sphere above all. It matters not one whit if one only defeats bourgeois ideologists in well-mannered debates before middle-class audiences if this is not transmitted to the working class. Marxist ideology must become a living material force within society and it must seek this force within the working class.

Any process of clarification means sloughing off the old outworn elements. Similarly, to achieve as pure a product as possible it is necessary to exclude impurities. Therefore cadres can only be built on the basis of the strictest selection. This selection must be emphasised. In the recruitment of new people there has to be a high standard of competence demanded. The door to membership of a Marxist cadre organisation cannot be wide open. If the cadre is to do its work properly there must be a deep rapport. This rapport must be very different to the type of uniformity imposed by subordination to one or two ‘theoreticians’. Such rapport must arise from a meticulous attention to theory and education, plus meaningful activity. Such education cannot be seen as something handed down, rather it must be seen as a continuing process for all concerned. Moreover, such education, whilst having as its basis the texts of the Marxist movement, must have its content continually enriched by actual struggle.

I want now briefly to mention the question of internationalism. No Marxist cadres can be created on a narrow national basis. It is true that we have to work in the situation in which we move and much of our experience will be drawn from this. But there can be no relapse into narrow national solipsism. Lenin, again, has something very useful to say on this point:

... the Social-Democratic movement is essentially international. This does not only mean that we must fight national chauvinism, but also that a movement starting in a young country can only be successful if it absorbs the experience of other countries ... it is not sufficient merely to be acquainted with it, or just to copy the latest resolutions. It requires the ability to treat this experience critically and to test it independently. (What Is To Be Done?, p. 9) [10]

There you have three key words – absorb, criticise and test – only thus armed can one approach the question of internationalism, any undue weight given to one of them leads to a one-sided and stunted appraisal. Internationalism is not a one-way process, the benefits that accrue from international collaboration will increase manifold only to the extent that each participant contributes. The need for a mass revolutionary International is more pressing today than it was in 1919. As in other matters, its creation will not be completely dependent on objective circumstances, the recognition of the need implies active work for its creation now. (This subject will be given a more extended treatment in the next article.)


There may appear to be a lack of very concrete propositions for action put forward in this essay. This, of necessity, must be the case because concrete and detailed propositions relating to the subject-matter can only be made after thorough discussion on the main postulates, and these have been to some extent a critical analysis of the past. The tasks that need to be carried out will not automatically present themselves from this analysis, but the main areas of activity have. Moreover, tasks cannot be discussed in a vacuum or suggested to disembodied spirits, they can only be discussed with real people. Certainly the most concrete action initially is the publication of this essay with the intention of beginning a discussion around the analysis. But this can only be a first step, although a continuing one, as the discussion unfolds actions will be initiated.

Precisely because I have attempted to raise the discussion along unfamiliar lines it may appear to be somewhat abstract, nevertheless it is grounded, indeed very firmly so, in the actual conditions that have been traversed and still face us here and now. What we make of these depends on each and every one of us.


1. See Towards Socialism (London 1965).

2. Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution?.

3. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5.

4. The headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain was for many years in King Street in the Covent Garden area of London; the Socialist Labour League had its headquarters at this juncture in Clapham High Street. The author’s reference to ‘uncle’ is referring to the change of allegiance of these intellectuals from ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin to Gerry Healy – MIA.

5. L.D. Trotsky, From a Scratch To the Danger of Gangrene, In Defence of Marxism.

6. It seems that the word ‘faction’ is meant here and in the following paragraphs – MIA.

7. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5.

8. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5.

9. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5.

10. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, Collected Works, Vol. 5.

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Last updated: 14 October 2014