Saturday, April 11, 2015

On Marxism and intellectuals: reply to a reader

Nick G.
In March 2015 the Vanguard website printed a reply from Cde. Nick G. to a reader’s query about structural crisis under capitalism.  The reader’s question began with this statement: Lenin has said that until capitalism is overthrown by the conscious exertions of the working class, it can recover from even the deepest crisis.

This has prompted a query from a second reader.

He/she says: “Thank you for your informative and thoughtful writing "Structural crisis and the outlook for capitalism". Meanwhile, 1) Do please let me know where Lenin has said that "until capitalism is overthrown by the conscious exertions of the working class, it can recover from even the deepest crisis"? I couldn't find it through a quick search in Marxists.

And 2) What is your evaluation of Mészáros' thoughts? I think he negates many Leninist teachings. What is the difference between him and other so-called academic Marxists like Zezek etc?

In struggle,”

Our second reader, whom we shall call X, is correct to query the alleged statement from Lenin.  He/she has apparently put it into a search engine on the Marxist Internet Archive ( and failed to find it.  By way of clarification, we would point out that it is not a direct quotation from Lenin; neither do we believe it is entirely inconsistent with what we understand to be Lenin’s views.  It was referenced by the first reader and is apparently drawn from a paper written for the Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency, and appears on their website in this paragraph:

Lenin explained that there was no such thing as an impossible situation for capitalism. Until it is overthrown by the conscious exertions of the working class, capitalism can recover from even the deepest crisis. As a general proposition, this is undoubtedly correct. But this general affirmation tells us nothing about the concrete situation we are now facing, or the likely outcome. We must analyse the historical moment concretely, taking into consideration where we have come from.
( See: )

The Trotskyite author of the paper in question, “Perspectives for world capitalism 2012 (Draft discussion document) – Part One” quite obviously draws upon Lenin’s 1920 contribution to the Congress of the Communist International.  We quote in full Lenin’s passage:

Comrades, we have now come to the question of the revolutionary crisis as the basis of our revolutionary action. And here we must first of all note two widespread errors. On the one hand, bourgeois economists depict this crisis simply as “unrest”, to use the elegant expression of the British. On the other hand, revolutionaries sometimes try to prove that the crisis is absolutely insoluble.

This is a mistake. There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation. The bourgeoisie are behaving like barefaced plunderers who have lost their heads; they are committing folly after folly, thus aggravating the situation and hastening their doom.  All that is true. But nobody can “prove” that it is absolutely impossible for them to pacify a minority of the exploited with some petty concessions, and suppress some movement or uprising of some section of the oppressed and exploited. To try to “prove” in advance that there is “absolutely” no way out of the situation would be sheer pedantry, or playing with concepts and catchwords. Practice alone can serve as real “proof” in this and similar questions. All over the world, the bourgeois system is experiencing a tremendous revolutionary crisis. The revolutionary parties must now “prove” in practice that they have sufficient understanding and organisation, contact with the exploited masses, and determination and skill to utilise this crisis for a successful, a victorious revolution.
It is mainly to prepare this “proof” that we have gathered at this Congress of the Communist International. 
(See: Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 31, page 227) 

Although it is a paraphrase of Lenin’s paragraphs, we do not take issue with statements to the effect that capitalism has proved to be quite resilient, that in the imperialist era it has additional resources upon which it can base its recovery, namely exporting capital to regions of cheap labour thus increasing the  impoverishment and misery of the world’s poorest people, technological innovations that allow it to reduce the proportion of variable capital (wages) in the production process, and above all, the elbowing and jockeying for position that sees the more powerful imperialist states redividing sources of raw materials, sources of cheap labour, and markets for products at the expense of the lesser imperialist powers, secondary industrialised nations and the nations of the Third World.  This formed part of our reply to the first reader (our response titled “Structural crisis and the outlook for capitalism”).

X asks about our view of Mészáros, Žižek and other so-called academic Marxists.  We are happy to offer some views on these people with the rider that we have not engaged deeply with their writings.  Our starting point is that many intellectuals are labelled or self-described as “Marxists” because they are familiar with and use concepts embedded in Marxism, such as alienation, reification, false consciousness, historical materialism, the labour theory of value and so on.  But even in Marx’s day, during the era of pre-monopoly capitalism, it was fashionably intellectual to recognise the class struggle and to be a “champion” of the working class, so much so that an enormous volume of waffle and verbiage was spouted forth by “Marxists” who nevertheless denied the one concept that Marx said was central to being a Marxist; namely, that the class struggle had to be carried through to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In Lenin’s time, during the emergence of the era of imperialism, there were many “learned gentlemen” (to use Lenin’s description) who claimed to be Marxists and Social Democrats (not to be confused with today’s Labor Party reformists: this was the name by which Communists were then known), but who not only denied the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also denied the inevitability of class violence occurring during revolutionary movements in the monopoly capitalist era, who denied the necessity for the most ideologically advanced workers (those who advocated the dictatorship of the proletariat and acknowledged the need to meet counter-revolutionary violence with revolutionary struggle) to be organised in a vanguard working class party based on the organisational principle of democratic centralism.

Guerrilla warfare, protracted struggle, the mass line – all emerged as revolutionary experience accumulated outside the developed capitalist world.  The giant status of Mao Zedong meant that quite a few “Maoists” emerged, some of them among intellectuals in the capitalist world, who were not advocates of either the dictatorship of the proletariat or of the vanguard party: they were attracted to what they saw as an idealistic spirit of rebellion, of a principled ethical and moral stance in “Maoism”.

We said in our response to the first reader’s enquiry about structural crisis that Mészáros did not adhere to the theory of the uneven development of capitalism.  Mészáros is familiar with Marx and uses Marxist terminology, he critiques capitalism and advocates socialism, but he does not advocate the dictatorship of the proletariat, neither does he encourage recruitment to and participation in a vanguard party.  Some of his analysis is useful.  We learn from and absorb that which is useful.  But we agree with X that the negation of many Leninist (and we would add, the most important of Marx’s) teachings makes it impossible to recommend him as a Marxist-Leninist theoretician.

As for Žižek, his flamboyance and highly animated declamatory style have made him something of a cult hero.  He cultivates a “left outlaw” persona by throwing Stalin back at the bourgeoisie, examining the trauma arising from the structures of violence embedded within the neo-liberal order, and referencing Lenin throughout his writings.  Much of his work focuses on cultural theory, on deconstruction of film and related topics; this gives him a real base in the youth of Europe. He takes post-modernism to task for denying the possibility of a new historical stage, just as he himself refutes any suggestion of inevitability about movement in the direction of that change.  There is even a new school of Žižek scholarship and an International Journal of Žižek Studies.

Although Žižek sees violence by the proletariat as a necessary response to the violence of “the system”, and although he criticises subjective or spontaneous violence for lacking direction and purpose, he shies away from advocating the conscious injection into the mass movement of the ideas of proletarian dictatorship and the vanguard party.  And neither, on the question of Stalin, does he do anything to demolish the anti-Stalin paradigms that have fettered our current generations of socially critical thinkers.  He frightens the bourgeoisie with his friend “Stalin” without ever revealing the great proletarian leadership and commitment of that “friend”.  And although there are many individual observations and passages in writings like “Living in the End Times”, there is no consistent advocacy of the steps necessary for building the revolutionary movement, or of the mechanisms for exercising leadership in a revolutionary situation. Thus it is possible to read Žižek without having to leave the comfort of one’s armchair. This makes it impossible to recommend him as a Marxist-Leninist theoretician.

The intellectual most closely identified with Žižek is the French philosopher Alain Badiou.  Badiou is the “academic Marxist” most closely identified with “Maoism”.  We reviewed Badiou’s book “The Communist Hypothesis” in our theoretical journal Australian Communist (Dec 2011 edition).  Rather than lengthen this reply with the content of that article, we refer interested readers to the pdf version of that journal here ( ) and ask that they scroll to p. 45 for the 5-page article.  Needless to say, our analysis finds Badiou wanting as a Marxist-Leninist and an exponent of Mao Zedong’s Thought.

Our reader’s question asked for the differences between Mészáros, Žižek and other “academic Marxists”.   Mészáros is primarily a political economist whereas the other two are primarily philosophers. So there is some difference in the content of their work and the ground they cover in it.  Žižek  and Badiou are often linked, although Žižek  has criticised aspects of Badiou’s work, such as his “full abandonment of Marxist historical materialism” (“End Times” p, 185).

It is not so much a matter of the differences between them, though, as of the differences between them and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s political and ideological line.  Each of them speaks as if they identify with either Marx or Lenin or Mao, but they are neither Marxists, nor Leninists nor Maoists.  “Academic Marxism” need not be a pejorative term: there is a great need for academics who are genuine Marxist-Leninists.  There is a need for theoretical contributions from academics and intellectuals who uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat and the role of a vanguard party of the working class.  But just as anyone, in Marx’s day, could babble on and on about the class struggle without really being a Marxist, so anyone today can babble on and on about neo-liberalism, post-modernism, invisible violence, the Communist Hypothesis and personal and social liberation without being a Marxist, let alone a Leninist, theoretician.

What we look for in our theorists in the Australian context is service to the practical advancement of the interests of the proletariat, which means placing at the front and centre of their creative works an endorsement and advocacy of an independent working class agenda for anti-imperialist independence and socialism; of a party whose politics, ideology and organisation define it as the vanguard of the working class; of a strategy for revolutionary struggle that embraces the required stages of that struggle and of the need to meet the violence of the reaction with the violence of the revolution.  In their theoretical works they should challenge the cultural slavery of the superstructure of monopoly capitalism and give alienated and disenchanted working class and Indigenous youth the values and understandings that will lead them to embrace the party in the confidence that it can lead them to a future society where purpose and commitment can be expressed and felt.

We call on Australian academics to embrace Marxism, to embrace Leninism, to embrace Mao Zedong’s political and ideological line, to repudiate post-modern justifications for the maintenance of the existing order, and place their talents at the service of the marginalised and dispossessed, of the Indigenous and other minority peoples, of our working farmers and rural labourers, of our industrial proletariat and all other working people, and of the great goals of anti-imperialist independence and socialism.

The future is ours, and Marxist intellectuals will help define and create it.

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