Ten years on from the crisis — why we need Marxist theory

As millions in the US are looking for a way out of the impasse of the capitalist system, rooting ourselves in the sound foundations of Marxist theory has never been more important. Ten years ago, few Americans considered themselves socialists, and even fewer were open about it. But life teaches, and conditions determine consciousness. A decade of crisis, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Trump’s election have led millions to look to socialism for a way out. The skyrocketing growth of Democratic Socialists of America after the 2016 elections is just one example of the dramatic changes in consciousness unfolding around us, a process that is still in its infancy.

The following is an updated introduction to the second edition of Marxist Classics: Volume One, available now from MarxistBooks.com, the previous edition can also be published from the UK , available now from Wellred Books

We first published Four Marxist Classics in 2007, on the eve of the 2008 crisis. Long before Wisconsin, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the 2016 election, it was clear that a new generation was beginning to question the system and looking for explanations. Our aim was to produce an affordable volume of “must-read” books which all budding Marxists should read and reread to establish the firm theoretical foundations required to begin organically grasping these ideas. Since then, similar editions have been produced around the world, and hundreds of copies have been sold in the US, a modest contribution to the “molecular process of revolution” percolating beneath the surface of American society.

Lenin and Trotsky Public Domain PD 1923

On the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution—without a doubt the most inspiring event in human history—there is an overwhelming sense that society has reached an impasse. The resonance of the idea of “late capitalism” reflects the feeling among millions that we are living in a world of absurdly dystopian contradictions. The means for abolishing global hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, preventable diseases, war, and poverty are sitting right in front of us, and yet these ills continue to ruin the lives of billions. Without a fighting lead by the labor leaders and no mass party of the working class, ideological and organizational confusion and eclecticism reign. There is more than enough willingness to struggle and sacrifice to change the world. But it is not enough to struggle and sacrifice—the working class needs a clear line of attack, strategy, tactics, and organization that can channel that energy into realizing lasting and fundamental change.

As we often say, you wouldn’t trust someone with no education in dentistry to give you a root canal—so why shouldn’t a revolutionary leadership, which is tasked with the infinitely more complex task of guiding the transformation of society, also study and learn about politics? We all have the capacity to become such leaders for our class if we put in the time and effort. This is why theoretical education is more essential than ever.

Nonetheless, some may ask why anyone should bother reading a book filled with works written long before most people alive today were born. At first glance, this may seem a reasonable doubt. Confronted by a barrage of social media, and with so much quality analysis of current and historical events provided on websites such as In Defence of Marxism, who has the time to read an entire book of theory? The answer to that question is clear: understanding current events and developing perspectives for the most likely course of future events is essential, but all of this is predicated on having a clear theoretical underpinning. This is why we must make the time to read Marxist theory! Anyone who wants more than a superficial understanding of events, and who does not want to merely parrot what they have heard or read somewhere will find the effort more than rewarding.

Marxist theory is both sublimely simple and infinitely complex—the dialectical unity between human knowledge and the laws of motion and development of nature itself. Far from being a burden, drilling into the nuances of these ideas is a joy. Just as a moving song expresses ideas and feelings in a way you could not yourself express, the Marxist classics express the deepest aspirations and collective worldview of the exploited and oppressed. Most importantly, Marxism arms us with the intellectual and organizational tools we need to fight back and win.

The ruling class purposely obfuscates the real workings of society to divide and confuse us. But as you delve deeper into Marxist theory, the veil of fog begins to lift, and you begin to understand not only what is happening, but why. As you connect the dots and unravel the hidden relations between people, places, and processes, the confusion clears, and the world seems to “fall into place.” Most importantly, the idea that we can effectively and decisively participate in the historical process becomes increasingly concrete and less daunting. This is why the aim of every revolutionary socialist must be to master the method of Marxism, to apply these ideas to the living, changing world. We must all learn how to analyze events—in order to intervene in them.

Everyone has a worldview, but it is usually an eclectic mix of a bit of this and a bit of that, picked up from this or that professor, co-worker, relative, or meme. In the same way, it seems everyone has an opinion on Marxism, but more often than not, it isn’t their own opinion. There are plenty of books that purport to explain “what Marx really meant.” But interpreting someone else’s ideas is highly subjective, and all kinds of distortions—both conscious and unconscious—can creep in. Why not go straight to the source and make up your own mind?

At first, the apparently steep learning curve of Marxism can be intimidating. There are many unfamiliar words and concepts to wrap our heads around. However, as with any field of knowledge, we need a sense of proportion. We should not expect to have the knowledge of a neurosurgeon if we haven’t even studied the basics of biology. But all of this knowledge is attainable, and it layers and accumulates over time. The most important thing is to take the first step. The outstanding Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who knew a thing or two about Marxist theory, gave the following excellent advice to new Marxists in his short piece, Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin:

“In the ideological sphere, just as in the economic arena, the phase of primitive accumulation is the most difficult and troublesome. And only after certain basic elements of knowledge, and particularly, elements of theoretical skill (method) have been precisely mastered and have become, so to speak, part of the flesh and blood of one’s intellectual activity, does it become easier to keep up with the literature not only in areas one is familiar with, but in adjacent and even more remote fields of knowledge, because method, in the final analysis, is universal.

“It is better to read one book and read it well; it is better to master a little bit at a time and master it thoroughly. Only in this way will your powers of mental comprehension extend themselves naturally. Thought will gradually gain confidence in itself and grow more productive.”

We believe this advice applies to each of the selections in this volume and to the collection as a whole. So why did we select these particular works? There are plenty of other excellent texts, which we included in volume two, and more volumes will follow. But while there is no such thing as a recipe book for revolution, these four relatively short pieces represent formidable building blocks of Marxist theory. They are also well worth revisiting over time, as there is always some new gem of insight missed during a previous reading, a function of our growing understanding of the ideas and the changed objective and subjective situation around us.

Marx anniversary MAIN

First up is the Communist Manifesto—the book that started it all. Drafted by Marx but attributed to both him and Engels, it boldly throws down the gauntlet to bourgeois society. After all the lies and distortions heaped upon communism, most people are surprised to discover it is not the Satanic Handbook or Anarchist Cookbook. Rather, it is a remarkably concise survey of world history and economics, a visionary anticipation of the world we live in today. In fact, as Marx and Engels were well ahead of their time, the Manifesto is even more relevant today than when it was first written. This is not because they had a crystal ball, but because they were the first to combine Hegelian dialectics with materialist philosophy, the most powerful tool for intellectual inquiry yet devised by humanity.

From economics to globalization, the rise of capitalism, classes, and the class struggle that drives all written history, all the essentials of Marxism are there. Although Marx and Engels developed and refined these ideas much further in subsequent works, all the basic elements are present in embryo in this work of genius written by a 27-year-old. Seventeen decades since these lines were first written, the “specter of communism” continues to haunt the bourgeoisie, and it is the task of the present generation to end the nightmare of capitalism once and for all.

Friedrich Engels

Next is Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels’s extraordinary yet compact introduction to basics of dialectical materialism, the philosophy of scientific socialism. Marxism is a worldview that embraces contradiction, change, and movement; it is a tool for understanding living, dynamic reality. Historical materialism is this philosophy as applied to the historical process, which is infinitely complex, and cannot be understood if we approach it superficially, as a rigid and lifeless caricature of reality.

As Engels explains, Marxism starts from the premise that changing society is not merely a matter of coming up with the idea of socialism, as with the utopian socialists, but of having the material means to actually provide a world of plenty for all. Capitalism’s historically progressive role was to develop the means of production to the stage where we can objectively provide enough for everyone. But it has now exhausted its potential and has become a fetter on the further development of society, threatening to drag the whole of humanity down with it. Socialism will not come about through appeals to the goodwill of the rich but through the class struggle, and the victory of the working class will lay the basis to end all classes, exploitation, and oppression.

Lenin portrait photo

Lenin’s State and Revolution is another essential work. Written during the course of the 1917 Russian Revolution, it takes up very concrete theoretical and practical problems faced by the working class in the struggle against the capitalists and their state. Building on Marx and Engels’s understanding of the question, and in particular, the experience of the Paris Commune, Lenin demolishes the revisionist idea that capitalism can somehow be reformed into oblivion without the dismantling of the capitalist state apparatus. He explains what the state is, whose class interests it represents, how a workers’ state would differ from a bourgeois state, and how the state will eventually wither away altogether on the basis of the end of class antagonisms once the working class wins political and economic power and begins building socialism worldwide. From Black Lives Matter to those who wonder whether revolution is really necessary, or if reforms within capitalism will suffice, there are many key lessons to be learned.

This volume ends with the Transitional Program, written by Trotsky on the eve of WWII, which provides incredible insights into how the Trotskyists fought to build their forces in a world dominated by Stalinism, fascism, and Rooseveltism, on the precipice of a human cataclysm. Much has changed since then, at least on the surface, but the fundamentals of capitalist exploitation remain the same. Again, what matters most is the method used to analyze the situation and to determine how best to raise demands transitionally. That is, in a way that raises workers’ horizons to the perspective and the need for the socialist revolution.

Revolutionary Bio Final Trotsky 2

Developing political perspectives is a science, whereas party building is an art. A scientific analysis starts by looking at the concrete needs of the working class today and examines how these needs can be met. If we are objective in our analysis, the resulting conclusion is that this requires a change of system. The task of today’s revolutionaries is to raise demands that bridge today’s level of class consciousness with the need for socialism, objectively stating what is, and what is needed to raise that consciousness. It would be criminal to tailor our demands to what the capitalist system thinks is “reasonable” or “practical.” What is reasonable and practical for the capitalists is the very opposite for the working class!

Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, the capitalist system is not in a position to give any broad and long-lasting reforms. History shows that even modest reforms are the byproduct of militant struggle, and this is what we must organize and prepare for. This is the opposite of those who think socialists should water their ideas down for “broader appeal” or should simply tail-end the movement. The task of a revolutionary leadership is to do precisely that: lead. Not through decrees, or impositions from above, or denunciations from the sidelines, but by proving in practice that our ideas and methods yield concrete results as we fight shoulder to shoulder with the rest of our class through all the ups and downs of the class struggle. The transitional program also serves as an indispensable bridge between the revolutionary cadres and the masses, a way of winning the most farsighted individuals to the revolutionary program and perspectives. An example of a modern-day transitional program is the one developed over years of democratic discussion and debate by the comrades of the US section of the IMT, available at www.SocialistRevolution.org.

We stand on the shoulders of giants—and this includes the sacrifices of millions of workers who have fought and died for a better world. Marxist theory is a guide to action, and we can assure everyone who wants to “do something!” that there will be plenty of action in the historical period we have entered. But impatience is the bane of revolutionaries. We need to patiently prepare for the momentous events whose outline we can already see on the horizon. The real question is whether all that action will lead to real and lasting success—an end to classes and class exploitation. That all depends on us. An army that sent raw recruits into battle under the leadership of generals who had never studied the wars of the past would be pulverized in the first engagement. Our class deserves better. An organic understanding and feel for the class struggle can’t be improvised in the heat of battle. It can only be built up painstakingly over a period of years and decades, through persistent political training and active participation in the struggles of the working class.

There is a thirst for ideas that cannot be quenched by liberalism and reformism. The postmodernists would have us believe that any idea is as good as any other and that ultimately, ideas don’t really matter at all. But scientific socialists judge the usefulness of any body of ideas by whether or not they give results. Do these ideas have explanatory and predictive power? Can they help us anticipate the ebbs and flows of the class struggle and chart a course for changing history? Lenin once said that Marxism is all-powerful because it is true. As revolutionary Marxists, we are full of confidence for the future and confident the truth will win out over the lies and perfidy of capitalism and its sycophants.

In the world we live in, there is no room for complacency. It may literally be now or never for the human species. Barbarism is creeping around the planet, and it can quickly engulf us all if we don’t bury the system that engenders it. Capitalism will not overthrow itself, and it will not teach us how to do it, either. This is where the great Marxists come in. This is why, if we are serious about changing the world, we must be serious about studying Marxist theory. As Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” If the working class is the lever that can transform the world, Marxist theory is the fulcrum.

The article was orignally published to the website of the American Section of the International Marxist Tendency | Socialist Revolution

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