In defence of theory — or Ignorance never yet helped anybody

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In 1846 Weitling complained that the “intellectuals” Marx and Engels wrote only about obscure matters of no interest to the workers. Marx angrily responded with the following words, “Ignorance never yet helped anybody.” Marx’s response is as valid today as it was then.

The publication of the series The Class Struggle in the Roman Republic has aroused considerable interest among the readers of Marxist.com. According to the information that has just been passed to me by the editorial staff, there has been a record number of individual visits to these articles, about 2,200 hits, which is significantly higher than the average number of visits per individual article.

Karl Marx and Friedrich EngelsKarl Marx and Friedrich Engels This fact confirms the correctness of the policy of Marxist.com, which has established a strong reputation for the quality of its theoretical articles. At a time when the ideas of Marxism are coming under attack from all sides, our website stands out for its firm and consistent defence of Marxist theory in all its manifold richness. It shows that many people all over the world are interested in theory and enthusiastic about deepening their knowledge of Marxism.

Marxist.com has its critics, however. Some of our critics complain because we write articles about ancient Rome in the middle of the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. In fairness to ourselves, Marxist.com has published a very great deal on the crisis, and will continue to do so. But we also have a duty to write about other matters, to raise the level of theoretical understanding of our readers, to provide a Marxist analysis, not just of economics but of history, science, art, music and every other sphere of human activity.

How do we answer those who demand that we narrow the scope of Marxism to fit into their limited mental schema? We do not have to answer them at all, because they were answered long ago by Lenin, who wrote: Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. That is a fundamental truth that all the great Marxists have insisted on. Let us remind ourselves of this elementary fact by a few significant examples.

No revolution without theory

Even before they wrote the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels (who, let us remember, began their revolutionary life as students of Hegelian philosophy) conducted a struggle against those “proletarian” leaders who worshipped backwardness and primitive methods of struggle and stubbornly resisted the introduction of scientific theory.

Wilhelm WeitlingWilhelm Weitling The Russian critic, Annenkov, who happened to be in Brussels during the spring of 1846, has left us a very curious report of one meeting at which a furious quarrel occurred between Marx and Weitling, the German utopian communist. At one point, Weitling, who was a worker, complained that the “intellectuals” Marx and Engels wrote about obscure matters of no interest to the workers. He accused Marx of writing “armchair analysis of doctrines far from the world of the suffering and afflicted people.” At this point, Marx, who was usually very patient, became indignant. Annenkov writes:

“At the last words Marx finally lost control of himself and thumped so hard with his fist on the table that the lamp on it rung and shook. He jumped up saying: ‘Ignorance never yet helped anybody.’" (Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, p.272, my emphasis, AW)

Weitling was opposed to theory and patient propagandistic work. Like Bakunin, he maintained that poor people were always ready to revolt. This advocate of “revolutionary action” as opposed to theory believed that as long as there were resolute leaders, a revolution could be engineered at any moment. We find echoes of these primitive pre-Marxist ideas even today in the ranks of the Marxists.

Marx understood that the communist movement could only advance by a radical break with these primitive notions and a thorough cleansing in the ranks. The break with Weitling was inevitable and came in May, 1846. Afterwards, Weitling left for America and ceased to play any noteworthy role. Only by breaking with the “worker-activist” Weitling was it possible to establish the Communist League on a sound basis. Yet the primitive tendency represented by Weitling constantly reproduces itself in the movement, first in the ideas of Bakunin, and later in the variegated forms of ultraleftism that still plagues the Marxist movement to this day.

In the Collected Works of Marx and Engels we find a real goldmine of ideas. Here we find Engels’ writings on the Peasant War in Germany, on the early history of the Germans, Slavs and Irish, his history of Early Christianity. In his article on the death of Engels, Lenin wrote:

“Marx worked on the analysis of the complex phenomena of capitalist economy. Engels, in simply written works, often of a polemical character, dealt with more general scientific problems and with diverse phenomena of the past and present in the spirit of the materialist conception of history and Marx’s economic theory.”

A brief list of Engels’ works immediately reveals the breadth of the man’s vision. We have his magnificent polemical work against Dühring, which deals in great depth with philosophy, natural science and the social sciences. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State deals with the earliest origins of human society. What has all this got to do with the working class and the class struggle, our “practical” critics will ask. Only this: that this was the work that laid down the basis for the Marxist theory of the state, which Lenin later developed in State and Revolution, the book that laid the theoretical foundations for the Bolshevik Revolution.

Mikhail BakuninMikhail Bakunin And what are we to say about Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German Classical Philosophy? In this book, Engels deals not only with the “abstract and abstruse” ideas of Hegel, but also with the ideas of obscure minor German philosophers of the Hegelian Left movement. Especially in the Correspondence of Marx and Engels we find a treasure trove of ideas with an astonishing sweep. The two friends exchanged views on all manner of subjects, not just economics and politics but philosophy, history, science, art, literature and culture.

Here is a crushing answer to all the bourgeois critics of Marx who present a caricature of Marxism as a dry, narrow doctrine, which reduces all human thought to economics and the development of the productive forces. Yet even today there are people who like to call themselves Marxists who defend, not the genuine ideas of Marx and Engels in all their richness, breadth and profundity, but the very same “economist” caricature of the bourgeois critics of Marxism. This is not Marxism at all but, to use Hegel’s expression, “die leblosen Knochen eines Skeletts” (the lifeless bones of a skeleton), on which Lenin commented: “What is necessary is not leblose Knochen, but living life.” (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Vol. 38)

Lenin and theory

Lenin always stressed the importance of theory. Even in the initial, embryonic phase of the Party, he conducted a pitiless struggle against the Economists, who had the narrow mentality of the “proletarian practico” and despised theory as the sphere of the intellectuals, not the workers. Answering this nonsense, Lenin wrote:

“Marx’s statement: ‘Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.’ To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day. Moreover, these words of Marx are taken from his letter on the Gotha Programme, in which he sharply condemns eclecticism in the formulation of principles. If you must unite, Marx wrote to the party leaders, then enter into agreements to satisfy the practical aims of the movement, but do not allow any bargaining over principles, do not make theoretical ‘concessions’. This was Marx’s idea, and yet there are people among us who seek in his name to belittle the significance of theory!

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity. Yet, for Russian Social-Democrats the importance of theory is enhanced by three other circumstances, which are often forgotten: first, by the fact that our Party is only in process of formation, its features are only just becoming defined, and it has as yet far from settled accounts with the other trends of revolutionary thought that threaten to divert the movement from the correct path.” (What is to be Done? Dogmatism and “Freedom of Criticism”)

The Economist trend, like Weitling and Bakunin, posed as a “genuine proletarian” tendency fighting against the pernicious influence of the “intellectual theoreticians.” A sharp break with this trend, which combined “proletarian” demagogy with reformist trade unionism in practice, was the prior condition for the formation of Bolshevism. But the struggle for theory, against the “practicos” was a constant feature long after that.

Lenin wrote in 1908:

“The ideological struggle waged by revolutionary Marxism against revisionism at the end of the nineteenth century is but the prelude to the great revolutionary battles of the proletariat, which is marching forward to the complete victory of its cause despite all the waverings and weaknesses of the petty bourgeoisie.” (Marxism and Revisionism)

In his book Stalin, Trotsky describes in great detail the psychology of the Bolshevik “committeemen”, who also had the “practico” mentality. They made a whole series of blunders because of their inability to understand the real movement of the workers in 1905-6. The reason for their errors (usually of an ultra-left character) was their lack of understanding of dialectics. They had a completely abstract and formalistic idea of Party Building, which was not related to the real movement of the workers. That is why in 1905, to Lenin’s horror, the Bolsheviks in Petersburg walked out of the first meeting of the Soviet, because it refused to accept the Party programme.

In 1908, when he found himself in a minority of one in the leadership of the Bolshevik faction, which was led by the ultra-lefts, Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, he was prepared to split away on the basis of a difference on Marxist philosophy. It is no accident that in this difficult time, when the very existence of the revolutionary tendency was in danger, he spent a lot of time writing a book on philosophy: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

One might ask what was Vladimir Ilyich doing writing books on such matters. What possible relevance can the study of the writings of Bishop Berkeley have to the Russian workers? One might also ask why Lenin thought it necessary to break with the Majority of the Bolshevik leaders on the question of philosophy. But Lenin understood very well the causal link between Bogdanov’s rejection of dialectical materialism and the ultra-left policies adopted by the Majority.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (portrait by Jakob Schlesinger)Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (portrait by Jakob Schlesinger) During the First World War, Lenin returned to philosophy, making a profound study of Hegel that was published many years later as the Philosophical Notebooks. One of his last works was On the Significance of Militant Materialism, in which he again stresses the need to study Hegel:

“Of course, this study, this interpretation, this propaganda of Hegelian dialectics is extremely difficult, and the first experiments in this direction will undoubtedly be accompanied by errors. But only he who never does anything never makes mistakes. Taking as our basis Marx’s method of applying materialistically conceived Hegelian dialectics, we can and should elaborate this dialectics from all aspects, print in the journal excerpts from Hegel’s principal works, interpret them materialistically and comment on them with the help of examples of the way Marx applied dialectics, as well as of examples of dialectics in the sphere of economic and political relations, which recent history, especially modern imperialist war and revolution, provides in unusual abundance.”

Trotsky and theory

Trotsky, like Lenin, devoted his entire life to an intransigent defence of Marxist theory. In his excellent article on Engels, he stresses the latter’s scrupulous attitude to theory:

“At the same time, the intellectual magnanimity of the master toward his pupil was truly inexhaustible. He used to read the most important articles of the prolific Kautsky in their manuscript form, and each of his letters of criticism contains precious suggestions, the fruit of serious thought, and sometimes of research. Kautsky’s well-known work, Class Antagonisms in the French Revolution, which has been translated into almost all the languages of civilized mankind, also, it appears, passed through the intellectual laboratory of Engels. His long letter on social groupings in the epoch of the great revolution of the eighteenth century – as well as on the application of the materialist methods of historical events – is one of the most magnificent documents of the human mind. It is much too terse, and each of its formulae presupposes too great a store of knowledge for it to enter into general reading circulation; but this document, so long kept hidden, will forever remain not only the source of theoretical instruction but also of aesthetic joy to anyone who has seriously pondered the dynamics of class relations in a revolutionary epoch, as well as the general problems involved in the materialist interpretation of historical events.” (Trotsky, Engels’ Letters to Kautsky, 1935)

In all of Trotsky’s works we see a breadth of vision and a broad interest, not only in history, but in art and literature and culture in general. Before the First World War he wrote articles on art and on writers like Tolstoy and Gogol. After the October Revolution, he wrote extensively on art and literature. His book Literature and Revolution is a product of that period.

Only color photograph of Leo Tolstoy (by Prokudin-Gorskii)Only color photograph of Leo Tolstoy (by Prokudin-Gorskii) In 1923 he wrote: “Literature, whose methods and processes have their roots far back in the most distant past and represent the accumulated experience of verbal craftsmanship, expresses the thoughts, feelings, moods, points of view and hopes of the new epoch and of its new class.” (Trotsky, The social roots and the social function of literature) In the middle of the stormy period of revolution and counterrevolution in the 1930s he found time to write on literature and art. In 1934, shortly after the German catastrophe, he wrote a review of Ignazio Silone’s novel Fontamara. In 1938, he wrote the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art together with the Surrealist writer Andre Breton.

We can just imagine the indignation of the pseudo-Marxist philistine: “What’s this? Comrade Trotsky is wasting his time at this revolutionary moment in history, writing about art? What has art got to do with the proletariat and the class struggle?” The philistine shakes his head sadly, and concludes that comrade Trotsky is not the man he once was. “This is not the Trotsky of The Transitional Programme! The Old Man must be losing his mental faculties!” Yes, we can just imagine it!

At a moment when Europe was convulsed by revolution and counterrevolution, when his supporters were being murdered and the Fourth International was struggling for its survival, why did Trotsky find time to devote to such questions as art and literature? When we have answered this question we will be able to see the difference between genuine Marxism, genuine proletarian revolutionism, and the superficial caricature that passes for Marxism in some circles.

“Mere theoreticians”

During the faction fight that led to the split in Militant, the Majority faction said that Ted Grant and Alan Woods were “mere theoreticians”. This winged phrase says all that needs to be said about that tendency. For decades we had devoted our lives to building the tendency that turned out to be the most successful Trotskyist movement since the Russian Left Opposition. Starting from a very small handful in the early 1960s, we succeeded in building a big organization with solid roots in the Labour Movement.

Ted GrantTed Grant All these successes were the result of years of patient work. In the last analysis, they were the result of the correct ideas, methods and perspectives worked out by Ted Grant, that great Marxist thinker. Ted was head and shoulders above any of his contemporaries. He was thoroughly grounded in Marxist theory and knew the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky like the back of his hand.

When Ted Grant and I were expelled from the Militant, we found ourselves in a difficult position. The Majority had a huge apparatus, lots of money and a team of about 200 full timers. We did not even have a typewriter. Yet Ted and I were not worried in the slightest. We had the ideas of Marxism, and that was all that mattered. All my experience has convinced me that if you have the correct ideas, you can always build an apparatus. But the contrary is not true. You can have the biggest apparatus in the world, but if you are working on the basis of incorrect theories and methods, you will fail.

We considered the position and came to the conclusion that in the [then] present situation, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, our most pressing task was to defend the basic ideas and theories of Marxism. The first result was the book Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science. Our former comrades had a good laugh about this book. Their sarcastic comment was: “You see! Ted and Alan have abandoned politics to write books about philosophy!” That was their attitude to Marxist theory – an attitude in the true tradition of Weitling and the Bolshevik Committeemen, but not at all in that of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

Sooner or later, mistakes in theory are translated into a disaster in practice. The former Majority have paid the price for their mistakes. What was formerly a powerful tendency with serious roots in the Labour Movement has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. On the other hand, Reason in Revolt, played a key role in establishing the International Marxist Tendency. It has been translated into many languages and has been commended by many workers, socialists, communists, trade unionists, Bolivarians (including Hugo Chavez).

How can we explain this? The advanced workers and youth have a thirst for ideas and theory. They want to understand what is happening in society. They are not attracted by tendencies that merely tell them what they already know: that capitalism is in crisis, that there is unemployment, that they live in bad houses, earn low wages and so on. Serious people want to know why things are as they are, what happened in Russia, what Marxism is, and other questions of a theoretical character. That is why theory is not an optional extra, as the “practicos” imagine, but an essential tool of the revolutionary struggle.

The workers and culture

It is a slander on the proletariat to say that workers are not interested in the broad questions of culture, history, philosophy etc. In my experience over many years, I have found that among working people there is far more genuine interest in ideas than in many of the so-called cultured middle classes. I remember a long time ago, when I was giving lectures to workers in my native South Wales, I once came across a metal worker who had taught himself Portuguese in order to read the works of a Brazilian poet of whom I had never heard.

Leon TrotskyLeon Trotsky The idea that workers are not interested in culture almost invariably comes from petty bourgeois intellectuals who have no knowledge of working class people and who confuse the workers with the lumpenproletariat. They therefore display contempt for the working class and their own middle class snobbery towards working people. This kind of person attempts to ingratiate himself or herself with workers by dressing in donkey jackets and affecting to imitate a “working class” accent. They use bad language, which they think improves their proletarian credentials.

I have seen too many cases of supposedly educated Marxists who think it is smart to imitate the language and habits of the lumpenproletariat, imagining that this will give them more credence as “real workers”. As a matter of fact, workers do not usually use such language in their homes or in polite company. To imitate the conduct of the lowest and most degraded strata of the workers and youth is unworthy of a Marxist, and much less someone who aspires to be a leader. In his marvellous article The Struggle for Cultured Speech, Trotsky described such language as the mark of a slave mentality, which revolutionaries should not imitate but strive to eliminate.

In this article, written in 1923, Trotsky praises the workers at the Paris Commune shoe factory for passing a resolution to abstain from swearing and to impose fines for bad language. The leader of the October Revolution did not regard this as an insignificant detail but a very important manifestation of the striving of the working class to break free of the slave mentality and aspire to a higher level of culture. “Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity—one’s own and that of other people.” That was what the leader of the October Revolution wrote.

There are many different levels in the working class, reflecting different conditions and experiences. The most advanced layers of the proletariat are active in trade unions and the workers’ parties. They aspire to a better life. They take a lively interest in ideas and theory, and strive to educate themselves. These strivings are a guarantee of the socialist future, when men and women will have broken, not only the physical chains that bind them, but the psychological chains that keep them enslaved to a barbarous past.

Trotsky stressed the importance of the struggle for cultured speech: “The struggle for education and culture will provide the advanced elements of the working class with all the resources of the Russian language in its extreme richness, subtlety and refinement.”

He explains that the revolution is “in the first place an awakening of human personality in the masses—who were supposed to possess no personality”. It is, “before and above all, the awakening of humanity, its onward march, and is marked with a growing respect for the personal dignity of every individual with an ever-increasing concern for those who are weak”. (ibid.)

The socialist transformation signifies not only the conquest of power: that is only the first step. The real revolution – humankind’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom ‑ has yet to be accomplished. Engels pointed out that in any society where art, science and government are the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position to keep society in bondage.

By making concessions to the low level of consciousness of the most backward and illiterate layers of the working class, we do not help to raise their consciousness to the level of the tasks posed by history. On the contrary, we help to lower it, and this will always have retrograde and reactionary consequences. We can sum up the discussion in the following way: that is progressive and revolutionary which serves to raise the level of consciousness of the proletariat. That is reactionary which tends to lower it.

Marxists must be in the first line of the working class that is fighting to change society. Our duty is to educate and train the cadres of the future socialist revolution. In order to perform this task, we must stand on what is positive, progressive and revolutionary and decisively reject all that is backward, ignorant and primitive. We have our aim fixed on a very lofty horizon. We must raise the sights of the working class, beginning with the most advanced elements, to the horizon of which Trotsky spoke in Literature and Revolution:

“It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

History & Theory » In defence of genuine Marxism