Home > General Comment > #OtMA: A Reply To JMP

#OtMA: A Reply To JMP

In a response to my post, #OtMA: Was George Washington a Maoist?, JMP, a blogger makes several claims against me in a post entitled, Without Revolutionary Theory… Among other things, JMP claims:

  • that I make the “same banal and confused claims certain sectors of the directionless left have been making for years.”;
  • that I am “demonstrating an inability to grasp both the movement of history and the historical meaning of theory.”;
  • that the American Revolution was “simply a war between brothers, the younger of whom wanted the right to exploit for itself…”;
  • that I am, “assuming that theory is nothing more than a bland act of expressing meaning after the fact of a revolutionary movement…”;
  • that I pretend my argument is not “a theorization of history and revolution”;
  • that my post, “‘occupies’ marxist academia merely by occupying a position within the ranks of marxist academia… it challenges nothing.”;

Well, I promise not to be blase’ or flippant in my response since the writer raises serious issues regarding my argument.

First, I want to concede, if I really need to, that my argument is a theory of the role of theory in the historical movement of society — JMP is correct on this. Since I have offered this theory, his accusation amounts to demand for me to reveal the premises of this theory. The premises of my argument are the premises of historical materialist method as outlined by both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. These premises are available to JMP in both the German Ideology and the eleven Theses on Feuerbach. I think I need not expand on them, since I assume JMP is completely familiar with both works. If my argument that violates the premises of historical materialism as outlined in those texts, I hope JMP will bring the specific statements in question to my attention.

Assuming we agree on the premises of historical materialism offered by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, JMP and I can together evaluate Lenin’s statement:

Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.

What is Lenin stating here?

He is stating that the revolutionary character of a movement is not to be found within that movement, but arises from the ideas external to this movement that motivate it. To explain why a particular movement is revolutionary, our attention should be focused on the ideas and conceptions of its members and not on their actions.

Is this historical materialism?


It is an invention passed on by Lenin from European social-democracy. The source of this argument is not Marx or Engels, but the renegade Kautsky, who sided with his own capitalists in the Great War. Kautsky is actually quoted by Lenin in “What is to be done” as the authority for Lenin’s argument on the relation between theory and practice. Since most people are only familiar with Lenin’s formulation above, I want to quote it so everyone can see just how raw and elitist Kautsky’s argument really is.

Kautsky states:

In this connection socialist consciousness appears to be a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle. But this is absolutely untrue. Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [K. K.’s italics]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig].

So, according to Kautsky, “socialist consciousness” — whatever that means — is not a product of the class struggle. Kautsky doesn’t offer any definition of “socialist consciousness”, but does classify this “socialist consciousness” as a science beside other modern sciences and argues “the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process.”

So, according to Kautsky, Lenin’s authority on the matter, science cannot be created by the working class, “The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia…”

So, when we return to Lenin’s statement, we can amend it as follows:

Without the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia there can be no revolutionary workers’ movement.

Lenin is basically stating the working class movement owes its revolutionary character, not to its material position in society, but to the bourgeois intelligentsia who become its leaders.

Perhaps I am unfairly mischaracterizing or distorting Lenin’s argument in some way. Well, let’s let Lenin speak from the grave:

…there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement

Now, I suppose, JMP can parse this sentence to make say something else, but I have always loved reading Lenin because his shit was clearly spoken. There are no metaphysical gymnastics in Lenin’s writing; I don’t have to keep running to Wikipedia to find out what a word means. In Lenin’s argument, the working class is incapable of creating a revolutionary movement because it lacks the capacity to create a theory.

However, in the These on Feuerbach, we are called to “grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.” Marx appears to be arguing that human action itself has a practical-critical or revolutionary character that does not depend on the ideas held by the people performing those action. Earlier materialist philosophy, Marx argues,

forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

And, this is precisely the argument Kautsky advanced, and Lenin adopted in the case. The working class is not capable of creating a revolutionary practical-critical activity on it own; it must be led by the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia. The ugly history of Leninist sectarianism (aka vanguardism) essentially results from this notion that workers themselves are incapable of creating theory. It is a notion that theory must be brought in from outside the worker’s movement if this movement will have a revolutionary character. According to Lenin, communists are supposed to stand in front of the workers’ movement and declare:

“You are incapable of freeing yourself unless we lead you; your fight against capital is only a filthy commercial argument and can never become more than this, because you are incapable of creating your own theory.”

So JMP, let me ask you something: How’s that working for you?

I want to continue this discussion to touch on the other objections JMP makes above, but I want to be sure we are using the same methods of social criticism. So before, we begin discussing my criticisms of academic Marxism; before we address the question of whether I am criticizing academic Marxism from within academic Marxism; and, before we begin discussing whether my opinion reasserts a very common academic position that is opportunist and petty bourgeois, can we agree on terms of this discussion?

Those terms can be simply stated according to historical materialism:

Without a revolutionary movement there can be no revolutionary theory.

Do you hold to historical materialism or not?

  1. Threecrow
    February 10, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Ezekiel 25:17.

    “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the
    tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through
    the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike
    down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

    • February 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm

      Ha! 🙂

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