The Marxist theory of social change

0803_revolution_Peter_WhitleyThe following is based on a talk given at a Socialist Alternative meeting in Melbourne last month

by Daniel Lopez

Every argument or action aimed at changing the world implies a theory of social change. And yet, mostly, we are unconscious of these theories. As a result, we risk incoherence, or at worst, reproducing approaches that uncritically reflect the logic of our social system. This is entirely unnecessary. Marx’s work, as well as the work of later Marxists, including Lenin, Lukács and Gramsci, gives us a set of theoretical resources more than adequate to understanding the process of social change and orienting activism. This article will seek to outline one approach to this theory, beginning with a few rival theories of change, passing to a critique of capitalism, including a discussion of history and ending in an argument about the dynamics of revolution.

Rival theories of social change

Perhaps the most common theory of social change is liberalism. This theory is less a coherent body of ideas than a general approach and series of sentiments and beliefs that unstably cohere in various articulations, movements and intellectuals. Central to liberalism is a faith in the transformative power of progressive, rational ideas. Liberalism eschews class analysis, preferring an eclectic combination of sociology, idealism and moralism. Herein lies one of the many contradictions within liberalism. When liberalism approaches the situation of an oppressed group, it will typically resort to a type of sociological materialism – crime, drug or alcohol abuse, political backwardness, and so forth are routinely related to poverty and social exclusion. And yet, the solution is held to be the betterment of humanity by education undertaken by enlightened social reformers. Liberalism on the one hand denounces the dehumanising conditions it encounters (insofar as it is capable of viewing them honestly) and, at the same time, addresses a moral plea for change to the powers that be. Liberalism is therefore the basic intellectual reflex of individuals who are becoming politicised or radicalised, but who remain theoretically well within the bounds of capitalism.

Historically, the theory associated with 2nd International Marxism and Stalinism counterposed itself to liberalism. This theory stressed the economic logic in human history and tended to crudely reduce political, cultural and ideological phenomena to a class basis. The march of history, combined with carefully (“scientifically”) organised class struggle was said to overcome the empty rhetoric of liberal politics. And yet, interestingly, the same contradiction that exists in liberalism also appears in 2nd Internationalism and Stalinism. Ultimately, for these “Marxists”, the working class is a passive force, directed by a party whose right to lead is guaranteed by their true intellectual insight into history. Thus, a crude, deterministic materialism gives rise to its opposite – the idealism and elitism of reformist or Stalinist central committees whose right to rule is granted purely by their self-declared insight.

These two theories of social change have been amply criticised by revolutionary Marxism over the years. Yet, there is a much more sophisticated theory of social change that is also much more important to Marxism. This is the theory created by Hegel. This theory is routinely misrepresented by Marxists. For instance, it is extremely common (and this begun with Marx) to dismissing Hegel as an idealist, or to argue that the only labour he conceived of was abstract mental labour. Yet, none of these simple claims stack up against the complexity of the totality of Hegel’s work. Hegel’s total theory is too complex and detailed to attempt a summary here. But a few points will suffice. To begin with, Hegel saw history as a unified process – ideas and “material” reality are never truly separate for him, even though they appear separately in the process of history. He believed that different historic periods – including antiquity, feudalism and the enlightenment – formed totalities containing internal contradictions. The clash of these contradictions would lead to crises and the creation of new types of society. The name he gave for this overall process was “Spirit”, which he thought had to be estranged from itself in order to come back to itself, consciously. So, for Hegel (as for Hegelian Marxists) the goal of history is a fully conscious humanity.

Now, Hegel did understand that labour is at the heart of human existence. This is clear from the dialectic of mastery and servitude in The Phenomenology of Spirit, although, the significance of labor in this section, and in the rest of Hegel is debated. But one thing that is clear: he didn’t understand history to be driven by the class-divide in the same way as Marx did. So, when Hegel turned his attention to his own society, despite developing a sharp criticism that in many ways anticipates Marx’s, he couldn’t perceive a social force capable of bringing about change. As Lukács argues in his essay “Moses Hess and the Problem of Idealist Dialectics”, for Hegel, this was paradoxically also his strength. Given the working class hadn’t formed fully in his day, there was no subject who objectively had the power to revolutionise society. As a revolutionary, the best you could aspire to was Jacobinism or Blanquism; that is, to favour an insurrection by a minority. This was not the path taken by Hegel, who developed a sharp criticism of this type of moralistic, utopian revolutionism. In large part, he left the question unanswered – or he answered so briefly and abstractly as to not really complicate the issue.

For Hegel’s supporters, however, this created big problems. The right Hegelians simply abandoned any criticism of their own society (thereby conveniently solving the problem of social change). The Left Hegelians maintained their commitment to change, and developed many different theoretical approaches to it. But all of these descended into a much more uncritical idealism than anything entertained by Hegel. What united the Left Hegelians was a conviction that if they only developed the right theory and the most cutting critique of society, everything would follow from that. While there is today no tradition that upholds this legacy directly, this style of theory is still a part of our world.

Virtually every campus on the planet is home to a philosophy, social theory, literature or history department that houses a unique creature we might call the “hipster theorist”. Far too sophisticated to descend to real movements of real people, these rare and fragile birds spend endless hours in a quest for nuance. Their life-cycle begins in post-graduate studies, progressing to sessional work, and for a lucky few, graduating into the hallowed halls of the academic establishment. Entry to each subsequent level is based on the alleged originality and sophistication of the individual’s work. Thus, their labour of Sisyphus becomes increasingly self-referential, increasingly cut-off from the world as it fragments along endless sectarian differences. Academic conferences pretend to relate to real world concerns – but make no mistake! Under this lofty theoretical superstructure lies a base in which aspirants fight amongst themselves for scarce travel and research grants, scholarships, publications and promotions.

One of course shouldn’t completely discount the possibility that there is some insight generated amongst this layer. Yet, the work of excavation will have to be considerable to render whatever truths exist here useful to real movements of real people.

Marx’s break

Marx and Engels’ earliest writings are concerned with breaking with this style of politics – then represented by the Young Hegelians – who he viewed with increasing contempt as unworthy successors of Hegel. These works – including the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, The German Ideology, On the Jewish Question and not least of all, The Holy Family, are magnificent testaments to Marx and Engels’ democratic, working-class commitments. Probably the single most important reason for their break with the Young Hegelians, according to Hal Draper, is that they became active in the movement for democracy. The moment you struggle to answer day-to-day questions, and relate to real people, it becomes very difficult to remain on such an idealist, elitist level as the Young Hegelians. So, Marx in his earliest writing made a huge breakthrough. He understood that theory alone – even very good theory – was not enough. Rather, you had to discover the real world dynamics that would lead to change.

Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, quoted Marx’s earliest work: “It is not enough that thought should seek to realise itself; reality must also strive towards thought.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean abandoning theory – as if this were possible for Marx! Rather, Lukács continued: “The historical function of theory is to make this step [the realisation of theory in practice] a practical possibility.”

This is to say that for Marxists, theory doesn’t change the world. But it should play a role in helping make real people conscious of the dynamics that already exist objectively in the world. In order to do this, we still have to get theory right. Indeed, as people who have made a commitment to change the world, we automatically have a theory, whether we like it or not. And given that for the most part, the far left exists only as small groups, the most important possession of the far left is its theoretical critique of capitalism. And yet, this comes with a danger: we have to strive to make sure our theory is real and is based on a real analysis of the world. There is a pressure towards schematism and sectarianism – the Young Hegelians represent the first modern example of the consequences of collapsing into this pressure.

Yet, whenever a conservative pressure is identified – in this case, the pressure towards academic schematism – it isn’t enough to implore ourselves to avoid it. Rather, we have to say how we are to avoid it. A key part of this is realising that there is no “view from nowhere” – in order to make a theoretical critique of capitalism, we have to discover a viewpoint within capitalism that leads out of it. These were the most important points Marx gained in his critique of the Young Hegelians – and they are well expressed in the Theses on Feuerbach. To paraphrase, theory has to submit itself to the “critique of practice,” it must develop a self-critique, and see itself as part of the social totality – and not above it.
These points tell us where to start in discussing Marx’s theory of social change.

The criticism of capitalism

Marx’s first clearly “Marxist” works are probably the 1844 Manuscripts. These manuscripts also mark his first serious engagement with political economy. Through this, he discovered a number of key points that would become the core of Marxist theory.

Firstly, Marx discovered that the commodity is at the centre of the system. The commodity is a use-value that is produced for exchange. This use value corresponds to a human need – and this may well be an “artificial” need.1 The use-value can also be seen as the quality of the commodity. As such, a use value is always something concrete and real. The exchange value, however, is key. The exchange value is measured numerically, in money. As such, the exchange value is quantitative and abstract.

This is already a key part of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Human needs are subsumed under the exchange value of commodities. It doesn’t matter what people need, what matters is that they have the money to buy those things. If you like, this is the ethical, humanist core of Marxism. Following from this, Marx begun to develop the labour theory of value. That is to say, he discovered that exchange produces nothing new. Supply and demand sets prices, for sure, but it doesn’t give the things being exchanged value in the first place. Rather, it is labour-power that gives things value. While David Ricardo and Adam Smith had already hit on this point, Marx took it a step further. He argued that for labour to produce exchange value, it had to be a commodity itself, and therefore, labour had to be split into concrete and abstract labour. Concrete labour is the actual act of production while abstract labour is a measurement of time, and is paid in wages. It is the difference between the value produced by concrete labour and the value represented by abstract labour that is the key.

Or, to put it in other words, when we go to work, we are paid a standard rate for a fixed period of time. During this time, we expend our labour power in concrete acts of labour. These concrete acts of labour produce more value than what we are paid in wages. This is the secret of capitalist exploitation, and is much more fully outlined in Capital, Vol. 1. Furthermore, Marx argued, for people to accept this raw deal, they must have no other means of subsistence. As Marx says in The Communist Manifesto – capitalism has already rendered nine-tenths of humanity propertyless. So, it was with these insights that Marx discovered the working class. This is the class whose labour-power produces the value upon which capitalism depends, but who are rendered property less and oppressed by this very role.

This discovery gave Marx’s theory of social change two decisive and connected advantages over its predecessors. Firstly, he could identify the class that had the potential to overcome capitalism. The working class both has an interest and an ability to overcome capitalism. That is, he was able to overcome utopianism and moralism by identifying a real world subject of change. (This doesn’t mean the working class automatically will overcome capitalism – more on this below.) Secondly, this allowed Marx to develop his theory in a unique way. This discovery made it possible to develop revolutionary theory from the point of view of the working class. Lukács would term this viewpoint the “standpoint of the proletariat.” This was a massive step above all other revolutionaries of his time: the Young Hegelians developed theory from the point of view of the radical intelligentsia (without, of course, admitting this to themselves). In the section of the Communist Manifesto on other approaches to socialism, Marx also criticises other socialisms ultimately on the grounds that they represent the view of other classes. Marxism, on the contrary, aspires to elaborate theory from the point of view of the proletariat, which Marx identified as the revolutionary class. This is, therefore, the very core of the Marxist theory of social change.

From the commodity to society – capitalism vs. feudalism

At any rate, what does this critique of the commodity, and the “standpoint of the proletariat” mean for Marx’s view of society? Simply put, it is the heart of everything that Marxism says about the world. As Lukács says of the commodity: “…there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of the commodity-structure.”

So, Marx argued that capitalism represents the domination of the whole of society by commodity production. Commodity production is, of course, the mode of production of the bourgeoisie. The domination of commodity production followed from the bourgeoisie winning hegemony. While this occurred historically for a number of contingent reasons, it is possible simply because commodity production is an enormously rational and efficient way of organising production. Commodity production was the impetus behind the industrial revolution, behind the development of world trade and communication, and it is the driving force behind technological development.

For commodity production to be successful, however, it needed to revolutionise the totality of society in a number of key ways. In order to make it clear how revolutionary capitalism was, I will also counterpose these features to what existed prior to capitalism.

A rational and predictable legal framework:

If you were a manufacturer or banker in the middle ages, you may well make a deal with a lord or baron, and then, when it came to being paid, they could refuse, upholding their right with their own private army of knights and retainers. Or, more prosaically, differences in rights between these castes put members of the bourgeoisie at a distinct disadvantage against their social “betters,” who they came to resent. Contrary to this institutionalised and formal legal inequality, the capitalist class demanded from the beginning a state with a common legal framework, so that they can make investments secure in the knowledge that contracts will be honoured and so forth. As capitalism begun to develop into more sophisticated forms – such as joint stock companies, corporations and so on – this rational and predictable legal framework became a crucial necessity, as a way to guarantee long term investments and to safeguard deals. This also gave rise to a demand for legal equality.

Legal equality

Legal equality suits capitalism not just from the point of view of the capitalists, but as a way to organise labour. As the southern states of the USA discovered the hard way, un-free labour is less efficient than free labour. This is also why Great Britain sporadically opposed the slave trade in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It simply costs much more to procure slave and keep them fed and under control than it does to privatise the costs of reproducing labour. So, in a sense, universal equality is part of the fundamental logic of capitalism. This also makes sense if we recall that commodity production requires labour to be a commodity. As humans, we are not equal. We all have different capacities, and are capable of different types of concrete labour. Yet, the capitalist is only interested in the worker insofar as he is a bearer of labour power – an abstract quantity.

In contrast, under feudalism, the concept of universal human rights and equality was outlandish and revolutionary. Instead of humans with rights, there were serfs, artisans, priests, lords, and so on. Your “caste” or estate determined your social existence completely. The idea that an individual could “rise up” through the ranks of society was literally absurd. This is represented in feudal culture – the art and the religion of the nobility all revolved around the social fact that they were superior to everyone else. By contrast, capitalism is much more democratic – in a formal sense. Legally and politically, individuals are equal. Just think of the ruling class today. Compared to the old aristocracy, they are extremely crude, uncultivated and “normal”.

Of course, it is easy to point out that legal equality conceals real inequality. Thus, at times the demand for equality can be a radical one. But equality cannot be a final goal for Marxists – it is a part of the social logic of capitalism. It is also a more efficient system of exploitation than feudalism was, because it creates universal individualism and individual freedom.2

Individualism and individual freedom

So capitalism is a system of individualism. It is your responsibility to find work, to feed yourself, and so on. Previously, under feudalism, a large and hierarchical family structure organised production in a much more local area. One farm would produce food, wine, basic manufactured goods and so on. People relied deeply on their connections to their village and to their lord. They were exploited, but not because they sold their labour. Rather, they owned or controlled some of their means of production, and were forced to give up part of what they produced by direct physical intimidation. All of this meant that the space of individual choice and distinction was next to nil. A person’s life and career was determined from birth.

On the contrary, under capitalism, we have what Marx called the “cold compulsion of economic facts”. Instead of having a feudal lord turn up a few times a year and demand surplus, in a certain sense, the fact that we ultimately rely only on ourselves for food and shelter means that we internalize our exploitation. Under capitalism, people largely force themselves to go to work because the alternative to working is poverty, or to be a burden on friends and family. Thus, we have what Marx and Hegel called “negative freedom.” You may define yourself however you like, and chose whatever job you like, provided you are exploited.

This is, incidentally, why the nuclear family is the norm under capitalism. It is the smallest efficient way to reproduce labour power. It fits with the needs that people experience, as individuals, under capitalism.

Indeed, capitalism is the first system to prioritise the private sphere; that is, a personal life that is experienced as separate to society. This is where we experience a degree of freedom – we may entertain ourselves how we like, form relationships and experience intimacy. So, in The Family, Private Property and the State, Engels even discusses how love is related to capitalism. Modern romantic love is only possible if you are free to choose a partner. Capitalism, by creating individual freedom, has made love possible – whereas previously, love was illicit, and occurred on the fringes of sanctioned relationships (just think of Romeo and Juliet). Of course, Engels adds the caveat that due to women’s oppression and the stress of economic facts, the possibility for meaningful relationships is often stifled. Nevertheless, this point illustrates how commodity production has a specific impact on even the most personal aspects of life.

Justice and discipline

This also extends to the criminal justice system. Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish is an excellent description of this. He contrasts the feudal justice system with the capitalist one. Under feudalism, punishment was public and graphic. As punishment for serious crimes, people were literally ripped limb from limb after being publicly tortured horrifically. On the contrary, under capitalism, punishment is “rational”. Minor punishments cost money. And more serious punishments take away our freedom for a measure of time. Punishment is also rehabilitative; that is, it is aimed (at least in principle) at reforming prisoners so that they can once more accept and internalize society’s rules.

At any rate, there are many more examples – and the above examples could no doubt be expanded upon. The key point here is to see that the logic of commodity production penetrates every aspect of society in a specific way.

Totality, and why this isn’t reductionist

Lukács, in order to capture this truth, argued that the most important and concrete category is the social totality. Under capitalism, this totality is ordered around commodity production. And so, the essence of the Marxist method is to relate different phenomena in society to this totality. This often gives rise to a charge that Marxism is reductionist and abstract, and incapable of dealing with the differentiated reality of experience, identity, culture, or whatever. This charge, however, belies a deep ignorance of the Marxist method.

For Hegel, Marx and Lukács, concreteness is not – as is often assumed – a more material, earthy or basic truth. Rather, Hegel believed that the most immediate and accessible truths were also the most abstract, one-sided and impoverished. Knowledge, to become actual and concrete, has to rise from immediacy, which is abstract, via negation, to a more mediated view.

This is to say, the concrete totality which Marxism aspires towards understanding is a multi-sided concept taken in light of its overall movement, history and internal contradictions. Therefore, when critics of Marxism accuse us of reductionism, citing some category such as identity or culture that is supposedly incapable of being related to the totality, they are in fact being abstract and reductionist. To demand that a category be treated in isolation is the essence of abstraction and reductionism. This problem is most clearly visible in identity politics which, at best, is only capable of understanding an individual as a grab-bag of different “intersecting” identity categories, and not as a human being.

Of course, this doesn’t inoculate Marxism against the risk of reductionism. In order to regard different aspects of society in light of the concrete totality, without reducing them to it, we should keep in mind a few methodological points.

The different institutions, categories and spheres that exist within society have their own history, their own ideology, and their own purpose. In a sense, each sphere of society or institution contains both an appearance, or ‘ideal’ aspect (that is, an idea of what it is supposed to be about) and an essence, which is more realist and ‘material.’ Both of these aspects develop in concrete circumstances, and therefore, reflect various contingent circumstances, events and pressures. Both aspects are necessary to the function of the institution in question. And only by understanding both aspects in their interconnection can we concretely connect the institution or sphere of society to the totality.

The institution of bourgeois politics is a good example of this. Fully developed liberal democracy developed well after capitalism had become hegemonic, and then only with the intervention of sharp class struggles to win universal suffrage. Different countries – for their own historic reasons – arrived at this system earlier or later, or with different variations. Some countries, typically those which are less advanced economically, or which have been wracked with revolutionary crises, have been unable to support fully developed liberal democracy.

The appearance of liberal democracy is crucial to its functioning – and it is based on the logic of capitalism outlined above. Democracy unites people on the basis of their membership of a nation-state and their status as citizens. As citizens, each person has formally equal access to the law, equal protection and an equal vote. Out of these votes, governments are constituted. Yet, Marx, in On the Jewish Question compared the category of citizenship with that of the exchange value of a commodity; that is, it is an abstraction and a quantitative measure which papers over the real differences between real people. So, a millionaire has an ‘equal’ vote to a worker. Thus, the appearance of liberal democracy conceals an essence that is about class domination. And yet, the appearance is intimately related to the essence – only in an economy based upon free exchange and commodified labour can a political system based on universal equality and citizenship form. And indeed, this economic reality is why liberal democracy functions and is convincing for most people most of the time.

This is of course a very compressed analysis. But it serves to illustrate that the job for Marxists is two sided. When we look at something like politics, we have to understand both the appearance and the essence. We have to understand that both of these things are equally important to the way politics works. And the only way we can understand this is to relate it to the totality. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of making two opposite and interrelated errors.

The first of these mistakes would be to take liberal democracy at face value – as reformism does – and to believe that the appearance of politics is its essence. Interestingly, at the same time as believing in this illusion, reformism also admits, in its practice, the cynical reality of capitalist politics. Hence, it uncritically repeats the contradiction inherent in bourgeois politics – between democratic appearance and despotic essence.

The second mistake would be to develop a kind of “conspiracy theory” critique of politics whereby injustices are attributed to the subversion of an otherwise fair system by a small clique or minority. This approach is often presented as a critique of politics as such – all politics is seen as corrupt. This type of earthy wisdom is usually backed up home-spun truths about the corrupting nature of power or the fallibility of human nature. Even though this approach can seem more radical, it tends towards abstention from politics – and therefore, makes it impossible to relate to people who do hold illusions in liberal democracy. This mistake essentially says “this system is one of absolute sin, my kingdom is not of this world,” and therefore condemns itself to marginality, thus allowing bourgeois politics to go on unchallenged.

What these two mistakes share in common is that they both fundamentally betray a faith in liberal democracy. The former believes in it naively, while the latter betrays its faith in liberal democracy by its shallow and reductionist critique of politics, which leaves the essence of liberal democracy – in the capitalist economy – untouched. Marxism, on the contrast, by holding both moments of bourgeois politics – appearance and essence – in dialectical interconnection, in light of the logic of commodity production, allows a deeper-going critique that doesn’t sacrifice our ability to understand the appearance of politics. Indeed, as Hegel would argue, appearance is just as real as the essence, and each constitutes a moment of the other.

Looking at history

How does this view of society allow us to understand history? The starting point is a key insight of Marx’s that Lukács points out in his Defence of History and Class Consciousness. Only by properly understanding the most complex and dialectical system in history – capitalism – can we understand historic societies.

So, we have discovered a few key truths about capitalism which can be applied retroactively. Firstly, the essence of humanity is labour. Labour produces everything we need. Marx went so far, in The 1844 Manuscripts, to say that labour produces our senses and even nature.3 Secondly, all labour is social. So labour produces and is produced by the social structures we live under. Indeed, this social dimension of labour is inseparable from the concrete labour people do. So, historically, after a certain stage of complexity, the social organisation of labour produces a whole society which, through a division of labour, functions as totality. The secret of capitalism is that human labour is organised universally under the domination of commodity production. This insight can be used to look at other societies: the key to understanding historic societies is to understand the social organisation of labour.

So, how do we look at a society like feudalism? Owing to a lower level of technology, and a less complex division of labour, production in feudal societies was much more beholden to nature – the seasons, natural disasters, and so on. Feudal societies were primarily agricultural societies, with manufacturing and trade taking place at the edges. The main mechanism of exploitation was the extraction of rent on land. This occurred in different ways: at times, (say in China), the state, via a vast semi-hereditary bureaucracy, taxed villages, and was the primary exploiter. This has been called the “tributary mode of production,” but one could perhaps also designate it “bureaucratic state feudalism.” Western Europe and Japan were slightly different, however: lords directly exploited serfs, and the bureaucratic feudal state was comparatively less important (although by no means unimportant, as the vast power of the Catholic Church proves.)

Understanding the productive logic of feudalism also allows us to understand its contradictions. Under feudalism, property was tied up with the person – it was not alienable property. A lord was not able to just sell up and move out. So, property was tied to a person’s body. This meant that primogeniture – lineal male inheritance – was extremely important.4 This is also where contradiction emerges: if the firstborn inherits his father’s property, what is to be done with the second, third and fourth born? Either, feudal estates had to be divided up – which obviously made them less powerful or, the other sons had to be farmed out – to monasteries, or to the crusades. But more to the point, this produced competition and tension within feudalism. It isn’t called feudalism for nothing.

So, the main object of competition under feudalism was land, as opposed to capitalism, where it is capital. Hence military struggle was more important. This also ties in to the way in which wealth was extracted. This military struggle was largely carried out by the nobility, and a sub-class of retainers they had – knights, who had special privileges and training. Again, this is in contrast with capitalism. Because we are all “equal”, when capitalism enters total war, whole populations are mobilized. On the other hand, under feudalism, the fighting was done by a layer of professional warriors, or at other times, by mercenaries. Commoners were required to fight far less regularly.

Change and contradiction through history

This is still a more or less static picture of capitalism and feudalism. How, then, do these societies change? Following Hegel, Marx believed that these societies have internal contradictions that cause them to go into crisis. Moreover, Marx agreed with Hegel that each society contained an inner logic that would lead to the next – often without the participants in these historic dramas understanding the direction in which change was moving.

So, the nature of exploitation under feudalism – the extraction of rent, via physical force – and the consequently primarily military mode of competition led to a number of factors, all of which allowed capitalism to develop in the cracks of feudal society. The biggest factor, however, was somewhat more contingent: feudalism in Europe was less developed than other parts of the world. More constant warfare between feudal principalities inhibited the development of the type of state-bureaucracy that characterised the more developed Muslim world and most of Asia. But, paradoxically, this meant that cities could develop in the cracks and spaces between feudal estates. The feudal aristocracy similarly had an interest in this as cities provided them with traded goods, weapons and finance. But this was a double-edged sword for the feudal aristocracy, as the cities became more independent. This occurred most clearly in the northern Italian city states.

Literally centuries before capitalism emerged on a national level in the Netherlands or England, capitalism solidly existed on a city level in places like Florence, Venice, Milan, Genoa and so on. These cities were where the technological innovations often took place, and this gave them both an economic, political and military basis for relative independence from feudalism. A key example was the development of crossbows and gunpowder. This meant that a city could raise a militia that could decimate knights who had required decades of training. Before capitalism could take over whole countries, it could hold its own in cities. This also gave rise to very recognisably modern political formations, including proto-democratic structures and radical movements, as Max Weber outlines in The City. In a way, this was a case of “combined and uneven development”.

Secondly, feudal competition meant that the lords had an interest in banding together in kingdoms, under a king. This led to the creation of feudal kingdoms and empires – the bureaucratic feudal states that have already been mentioned. Over time, the head of the feudal state tended gain power at the expense of the lords. While this occurred most clearly in Spain and France, it occurred to a lesser extent in England. Indeed, this tendency towards large, absolutist feudal states is visible all over the world. And in most parts of the world, it led to the total domination of the state. In most cases, this prevented further development, as the state over-powered all opposition, both from lords and the earliest mercantile capitalists. Yet, these states were important because they built the foundations of the first nation-states. Capitalism, when it broke out, to be able to resist compromising with feudalism (as it usually did in the city-states), had to break out in a whole nation.

But these two factors – the development of the feudal absolutist state and the cities were, by themselves, not enough. It also required a series of other factors, including the development of trade – so that an urban bourgeoisie could build up sizeable wealth – and crisis, often brought on by the same military competition. All of these things meant that the first breakthrough of capitalism, on a solid national level that would last until our times, occurred in England, in the revolution of 1640. In a sense, this was a “goldilocks” scenario – the immanent logic of feudalism provided cities, economic development, a state and a crisis in just the right proportion to produce a viable and long-lasting bourgeois revolution. On an ideological level, this revolution is also fascinating because it was more or less entirely articulated through the language of the Old Testament. But at any rate, this example demonstrates that the immanent contradictions and tendencies within feudalism created a situation – although not in a strictly determined way – in which a bourgeois revolution was possible, and in which capitalism was capable of breaking out of isolation.

Finally, it is important to point out a major caveat. Prior to capitalism, history was in a sense both more and less determined. It was less determined in the sense that the immanent contradictions within feudalism took much longer to play out, and were much more subject to contingent historical factors. Had the bourgeois revolutions in Europe been set back, there is no strong reason why feudalism might not have persisted centuries more. But on the other hand, because no class existed that could comprehend the process of history, or society as a totality, no class was free to really shape society. Freedom of action, on a historic level, requires consciousness. Of all the classes created within feudalism, the bourgeoisie was the most prescient and therefore the most potentially powerful. This is also because it represented a new and more dynamic mode of production. And yet, none of the bourgeois revolutionaries understood what they were doing – they genuinely believed that they were fighting for the kingdom of god, or a virtuous republic, or whatever. But in reality, their actions only brought about a new exploitative system.

And anyway, as Marx observed repeatedly throughout his life, capitalism was required as a prerequisite to genuine historical freedom. This was not only because it was necessary to create a sufficient living standard, but also because only under capitalism does the whole world function as a fully integrated totality and only under capitalism is there a potential subject that can intervene into world-history and end class society for good.

These comments, however, turn our attention back towards capitalism. Yet, before we return, a few comments about another variant on the Marxist theory of social change are in order.

Base and superstructure

It may be apparent from the above account that the theory of change I am discussing in this article is to some extent at odds with the “base and superstructure” theory of historical and social change that is often favoured by revolutionary Marxists, especially those with a connection to the Trotskyist tradition. I don’t propose to dwell on the question, or even comment extensively. But a few points will shed light on the debate, and hopefully orient those who have yet to take a side.

Firstly, Marx’s writings are not clear on this issue. Upon a detailed reading, he can often seem to propose answers that are slightly at odds with each other. The famous “base and superstructure” formulation only appears in one place, and was never seriously thematized by Marx or Engels. Some of the most important of Marx’s statements on history were not intended for publication, and did not see light in his (or Engels’) lifetime. And given the extensive never-ending revisions that Marx submitted Capital to, it is a safe bet to say that had he turned his attention to a theory of history, the product would likely be much more developed and refined than what exists in his writing.

So, given this, it has been up to Marxists to formulate a coherent Marxist theory of social change in the way they see fit. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and in itself, no reason why we should try to impute a total coherence to Marx’s own writings on the issue. At any rate, the most common account of Marx’s theory of historical change generated by Marxists usually begins with the forces of production. These are said to be the tools, resources and (to some extent) the level of technique involved in production. These give rise to certain relationships of production which then may reflect back on the forces of production, allowing them to develop. So, a much more sophisticated set of social relations are required to manage a factory than subsistence farming. The forces and relations of production, taken together, are said to constitute the base of society, which then gives rise to a superstructure, involving ideology, the state, the legal system, and so on. Within this whole formation, the final determining instance is said to be the forces of production, which grow, and come into conflict with out-moded relationships of production. This in turn, may produce a crisis in the superstructure. Struggles fought out at this level then determine whether a new mode of production is created, or whether the old one is preserved, at the expense of vast destruction.

Although virtually no Marxists attempt to exclude the other aspects of the totality from having a historic impact, primacy is ascribed to the base, and within the base, to the forces of production. Now, there are various articulations of this theory – some much more robust than others. Moreover, a basis can be found in some of Marx’s writing for these arguments.

However, my view is a bit different. I don’t dispute that the above theory has descriptive power. Moreover, a number of very perceptive Marxists have been able to use it in a way that, in my view, basically modifies it into a dialectical view of society. Franz Jakubowski (a Trotskyist writing in the 30s) was the first to my knowledge to do this. But more recently Chris Harman achieved this.5

But, this said, I think the “forces/relations” and “base/superstructure” theory tends towards reductionism. This is for a few reasons. Firstly, labour is always already social. And we are born into a society that totally determines our identity, our actions, and our activity and so on. So, the forces of production are always, already determined by the social totality. This is a simple point when you think about a factory – the arrangement of a factory, including production lines, foremen, 24 hour continuous production, and so on, are all obviously symptomatic of an already profit-oriented production process. One thing cannot be read from another, or even said to determine another – both simultaneously reinforce each other. The fact that administration, design and distribution are separated out from the production process is also illustrative of this.

Moreover, factories – the standard forces of production of capitalism – only came into existence well after the capitalist class had won control over the state, and had expanded trade massively. In other words, political and military supremacy was crucial to the development of capitalist power. Of course, as argued above, these were organised around an economic logic. But this logic was the expression not of any forces of production, but of the productive relationships of the bourgeoisie. In my view, separating the forces and relationships of production is only useful analytically. In reality and historically, they are not separate, and one cannot be said to have primacy over the other. This is also true for pre-capitalist society. The way peasants approached their farm and their tools, or the way in which artisans approached their craft, via guilds, was totally determined by the relations and society they were born into. Of course, it is true to say that capitalism requires more developed forces of production than feudalism, just as socialism needs more developed forces of production than capitalism. But this is a different thing to establishing a causal link, even a weak one.

This implies another objection to the forces/relations, base/superstructure paradigm. These antinomies do describe the motion of capitalism (although, the concrete totality is still the most important category). While they aren’t the essential contradictions under capitalism, they come close to capturing the logic of the system. This is because capitalism is the only system in history to systematically prioritise the economy, and therefore, the development of the forces of production (this is in turn a result of its relationships – primarily competition). Pre-capitalist systems did no such thing. There was no strong tendency towards development of the forces of production in prior human history. The forces of production in feudal Europe did not develop to a point where they disrupted the relationships, leading to a revolution – to assert this is a very shallow argument historically.

At any rate, a further development of this argument would require a specific article. For now, we will turn back to a discussion of capitalism.

Capitalism and crisis

As has been argued, capitalism is a social totality structured around an economic logic. In essence, capitalism is contradictory because it is a system of social production based on individual appropriation. The study of these contradictions is the task of Marxist political economy.

Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, used the term reification to discuss the contradictory and inhuman logic of the capitalist economy. Reification is when social relations dominate us as though they are foreign powers completely beyond our control. Rather than living in a world where we know our social institutions and products to be our product, and therefore, subject to our control, the products of our labour are estranged from us and dominate us. They take on a life of their own, seemingly acting of their own accord, and demanding that we subordinate ourselves to them. The way that governments talk about the economy is a perfect example of this. We must adapt to it via spending cuts, or restructuring. But the legitimacy, the origin, or the functioning of the economy is never questioned. So, Lukács argued that reification makes things like the economy appear to us as natural laws – the best we can do is understand them and adapt ourselves to them. The idea that we can fundamentally change the way the economy works – to make it more human – is seemingly excluded.

So, reification therefore constrains both the major classes in society – the working class and the bourgeoisie. Of course, individuals from either class experience it quite differently in terms of personal consequences. But as classes, the bourgeoisie as well as the working class (at least, outside high-points in class struggle) are subject to a logic and a process that they cannot fundamentally control. This said, it is important to see that just because capitalism excludes humanity from control over the system, it doesn’t mean that nothing changes. We might feel like nothing changes, but in actuality, capitalism is the most dynamic system that has ever existed.

Capitalism’s dynamism plays itself out, firstly, as contradictions that operate in the economy. This is where Marx’s Capital, as well as later Marxist economic theory comes in. This body of work analyses contradictions that emerge in production. There is no way to summarise these contradictions here, but the most important one is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Over time, the growth of constant capital (machinery, investments, products, etc. – dead labour) in proportion to variable capital (living labour) makes it impossible for capitalism to reproduce itself profitably. This leads to convulsions and crises. Ultimately, this is how we explain the great crisis of 2008 – decades of relatively low rates of profit (it is debated how low) led to massive speculative investment. Yet, speculation produces nothing, and as such, it had to come crashing down. Now, the recovery is shallow and difficult because it is next to impossible to produce enough profit in the most developed economies to drive a real recovery.

So, economic contradictions produce crisis, and from crises flow – although not in a straight forward way – opportunities to fundamentally change the system. As has been argued, Marxism is hostile to determinism because it views humans as creative and as the producers of their whole world. Yet, for Marx, following Hegel, freedom is not something we have in the abstract. We can only be genuinely free when we are able to collectively and consciously decide upon the structures and society we want to live under. Reification systematically denies this. But it contains its own downfall – by making us un-free, and denying us any way of consciously controlling our world, capitalism makes crises utterly inevitable.

This is why capitalism – on one level the most rational system – at the level of history and the totality is the most irrational system. Hence, we can say that crises are completely inevitable. Marx made this prediction in his time and notwithstanding a number of “countervailing tendencies” that capitalism resorted to, in order to delay crisis, he has been completely vindicated. It is possible to say, in 2014, without the hyperbole or messianism that often accompanies such judgements, that we are in the beginning of a long historic period of crisis, whose potential resolution is not yet visible.


Prior to detailing the breakdown of capitalism, it is important to make a few comments about how reification relates to ideology. This is because it is common for Marxists to slip in to the most simplistic clichés when talking about ideology, and “false consciousness.” For instance, a standard account of ideology might begin with the Marx quote from The German Ideology that the dominant ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Then, the account moves on to discussing the various falsehoods and illusions that one is taught in school, by the media, and so on.

But there are big problems with this account. Firstly, in many places the official curriculum is loaded with small-l-liberalism, and ideas that are on balance progressive. It is always possible to point to the limitations of these ideas, but to say that the education system teaches pure propaganda is to fall into a conspiracy-theory view of the world. Of course, there are struggles over curricula – or for that matter, the content of the media – but these “ideological state apparatuses” are quite secondary.

This is essentially because they don’t have to teach us to accept the system. The legitimacy of the system runs at a much deeper level than people’s consciously held ideas. Indeed, as we have seen in the last few decades, massive and widespread cynicism about the institutions that make up our system – and even the system itself – is entirely compatible with capitalism. For example, the moment progressives start talking about corporations being evil or about politicians being bought off, virtually everyone agrees. Major Hollywood movies incorporate these types of themes into their plots. This tells us that the most powerful “ideology” keeping capitalism in place isn’t a conscious set of ideas. Rather, reality keeps people in check. Or, to put it another way, for the time being there really isn’t any way to change the system. Well may we say that the working class has the potential to overthrow capitalism. And this is true enough. But so long as capitalism is stable, this is an abstract truth whose historic day has not yet come. It is a prediction about the necessary and immanent direction of the class struggle.

Of course, this isn’t an argument against being active. At times, struggles within capitalism can win minor, or more rarely, major changes. But, as Marx says in The Communist Manifesto, the real point of struggle isn’t the immediate result, but in what is learned. But then, this too depends on the depth of the struggle. And unfortunately, sharp class struggle is uncommon. So, in times of political stability, when people become activists, if they want to stay involved in politics for the long term, it is extremely important to understand not to expect serious change any time soon. That is, serious Marxist activists need to have a long term perspective.

This might cut against the instincts of those who want to change the world, but understanding the powerlessness imposed by reification is crucial to understanding how change can occur. Capitalism, as has been argued, individualises everything. Outside of large-scale class struggle, people objectively experience the world as individuals. This is true even of people who are committed to making change. There is nothing in our lives except ourselves pressuring us to stay active. Hence, even though Marxist orient towards collective change, the structure of individualism conditions our effort.

So, as individuals, people make choices about how best to adapt to a system they have no power over. Most people chose to find a job that they can tolerate, and to find other thing to do in their life to make it all bearable. Some people, more rarely, try to reject simply conforming to the economic logic of the system. Hence, you get people who try to seek out a creative or ethical lifestyle that is somehow above the daily grind. But, it doesn’t take much to see that a person’s ability to do this is entirely dependent on their economic means. The apparent freedom or virtue in such choices is a thin cover for a life-style that is thoroughly compatible with the system and indeed quite marketable.

Now, when something outrageous happens – either in the world, in politics, at work, or in a community – people can be driven to try and take a stand. Or, smaller numbers may make this choice as a result of their own investigation into the injustices around them. But even then, for the most part, taking a stand isn’t enough. And most people know this. So, when people attend a demonstration, or vote, or give money to a cause they support, they generally don’t believe their actions are going to bring about a serious change. Rather, they are taking a stand for moral reasons.

Saying this doesn’t detract from it. All social change begins with moral outrage. Indeed, as individuals, the only possible stance we can take against injustice is a moral one, of condemnation. Of course, we want to go beyond moral outrage – but this doesn’t mean that we should be condescending towards it. Moralism can allow some people to move towards a more worked out criticism of capitalism. This layer of people will be the main constituents of the Marxist movement until such a time as a re-emergence of radical mass politics makes it possible to relate to broader layers of the population. When large numbers of people are involved, moral outrage can transform itself into real, effective power. Witness, for instance, the beginning of the Arab Spring of 2011.

Yet, for the most part, instinctive attempts to oppose capitalism don’t genuinely overcome the structure of individualism. Social movements, at times, can be a partial exception to this. At their worst, social movements are temporary and unstable accumulations of individuals who are only shallowly and superficially united with each other. However, historically, some social movements have gone some way towards challenging capitalism. These were most powerful when they were able to draw in support from unions and the workers’ movement. And in general, movements tend to be stronger when based on a cohesive community that can, to some extent, unite collectively. This has at times been the case amongst the Black community in the United States.

But this said, movements tend to unite people on the basis of their identity (and the oppression they experience as a result of it) or on the basis of a temporary political issue. Movements have therefore never provided a stable collective subject that can overcome reification. This is also because movements cannot strike at the heart of capitalism – they are therefore stuck on the terrain of liberalism or reformism. This is also why they are historically ephemeral, lasting at most years. This also explains why the most extreme fringes of social movements often gravitate towards strategies and political views based on the acts of a radical minority. This view doesn’t escape the logic of reification at all, but rather, intensifies it.

So, to return to the main point, the thing that most keeps capitalism in power is objective reality. We are objectively as well as subjectively (that is, in consciousness) fragmented into individuals. The moment we chose to resist this, we run into insurmountable obstacles. So, in a way, capitalism doesn’t care what we think of it or if we protest, so long as we stay fragmented and powerless. In more philosophical language, most challenges to capitalism founder on the contradiction between what is and what ought to be, perceiving no real bridge between the two.

As an aside, this isn’t to say ideas aren’t important on some level. But they are way less important than a lot of people give them credit for. I think the main role of right-wing ideas (say, right wing economic ideas, or the fear of refugees) is to convince people to support bourgeois politicians who they would otherwise hate.

To return to the main argument, the one class in society whose action can overcome the individualism imposed on us by the system is the working class. This is why the working class is the one class in society capable of genuine collective action. I’m not going to go through all the arguments for this as they should be assumed knowledge for Marxists, at whom this article is aimed. Suffice to say, every attempt to discover an alternative subject of history – from the New Left students, to Third World struggles, to various oppressed groups – has turned up nought. The Marxist impulse to change the world must remain oriented to the working class, even in historic periods in which the working class is quiescent.

Indeed, this quiescence is often a source of frustration for Marxists – implicitly or explicitly. Of course, even while capitalism is strong, it is quite possible for strikes and a strong workers’ movement to win serious changes. But ultimately, the workers’ movement for the most part accepts the hegemony of capitalism, and this is entirely to be expected. One of Lukács’s most important theoretical contributions was to outline the conditions under which the workers’ movement may move, dialectically, towards a more revolutionary stance.

Crisis and the actuality of revolution

Lukács called the historic period of revolution the “actuality of revolution.” He primarily discussed this in his book Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought, which is often incorrectly seen as a proto-Stalinist work. Similar themes are also found in the second half of History and Class Consciousness, where Lukács superbly discusses his theory of revolution and the revolutionary party.

Lukács argued that crisis begins to break the hold of reification. In his day, this occurred primarily with World War One and its aftermath. This period of intensified social violence and breakdown, which included mass confrontations with death, decisively undermined the ingrained structures and habits of capitalism.6 I don’t mean to discuss this historic period in a lot more detail because I think we can see the beginning of this process playing out in Europe, and to some extent in America today.

So, the actuality undermines reification in a number of ways. Firstly, crisis exposes to everyone the reality of class. It has become common knowledge amongst workers and the poor that the economy and the government exists to protect the ruling class. In other words, the appearance is broken down and the essence becomes visible. Additionally, crisis forces people to organise and fight by confronting them with immediate threats to their livelihood. Now, these fights will often not be successful – but the deeper struggle is, the more people learn from it. They learn how to organise, but more importantly, people learn how to think politically; that is how to relate their situation to other issues. Some of this has been in evidence in Ferguson, where black activists explicitly articulated their grievances with great sophistication, not just in terms of race, but also class. Moreover, in a number of interviews and other forums, protesters have demonstrated a very high level of political understanding, including of strategic questions. We can also see this in Greece, where the workers’ movement is in the middle of grappling with difficult and high-level political problems, including that of reformism and fascism.

This hints at the most important thing about crises: they can initiate a historic period in which politics is primary. What is the significance of this? To begin with, a paradoxical feature of the world today that politics tends to be apolitical. In a certain sense, we live in an era of anti-politics. Disgust with and alienated from the political system are common. This is, however, hardly an exceptional or new phenomenon. If you take a long view – this is quite a standard part of capitalism. To paraphrase an article by Daniel Bensaïd, for the most part, it seems as though time doesn’t move; that nothing can change. Bensaïd called this a homogenous, non-political time.

Now, this type of historical period does not make Marxist politics impossible – as the existence of organised Marxist groups proves. But, so long as Marxists are on the margins of politics and social life, our politics are a recollection of and generalisation of the historic class consciousness of the working class.

The important thing about crisis is that if it is deep enough, and if struggle is deep enough (and neither of these things are necessarily inevitable), it can create a period in which virtually the whole population is drawn into politics. This creates a fundamental change in politics. This is how we should understand the rise of a group like SYRIZA in Greece. It is a massive historic breakthrough that a group which expresses a genuine and angry desire to end capitalism has become the major opposition party. Moreover, this type of period – the actuality of revolution – makes it possible to begin to talk sensibly of the key questions of a revolution; in other words, it makes it possible for our politics to cease being abstract and utopian and be really concrete. So, in Greece, the political debate between reformism and revolution has ceased to be the exclusive possession of far-left groups, and has begun to be a real debate for society.7

To use another concrete example, if we make an argument in Australia or New Zealand today that only the working class can end austerity or racism, this is perfectly true and also perfectly abstract. IT doesn’t relate to anything real. But in the actuality of revolution, these questions become immediate, concrete questions. Now, I’m not necessarily saying how well developed the actuality of revolution is in Greece. But if you make the argument that the working class can end austerity or racism over there, it is fundamentally much more real and concrete.

Dual power, the role of the party, and revolution

The theory being outlined here has now well and truly passed over from a theory of history into a theory of revolution. And as may be clear, the main reference point is Georg Lukács. Yet, if you read the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, or Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, a very similar theory is clearly in evidence. Similarly, Gramsci developed a similar approach as a result of his experience in the Bienno Rosso and in leading the Italian Communist Party. And Lukács, of course, developed his theory as a generalisation on Lenin’s political writing and practice in Russia and as a result of his own experience in the Hungarian and German communist movement.

To put my cards on the table, I think this theory of revolution is different to that espoused by classical Trotskyism. The Trotskyist movement typically emphasises formulae like permanent revolution, transitional demands and the united front. These ideas aren’t strictly wrong; they express something of the logic of revolution. Yet they do so in a schematic way. But the truth is that a revolutionary period is an extremely fluid, dynamic and contradictory thing. Incidentally, Trotsky himself, in his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution, clearly understood this.

The key to understanding a revolutionary period like 1917 is not formulas, but to be willing (and able) to break with formulas in order to understand the concrete reality in as complete a way as possible. This is the overwhelming message of Lenin’s April Theses, which are amongst the most important documents of 1917. Essentially, he argues that the Old Bolsheviks, by maintaining their commitment to the revolutionary program that had been formulated before 1917, had converted themselves into conservatives. The reality had changed, and it was now up to revolutionaries to respond to that new reality. So, what was the new reality, and how did Lenin understand it?

The key feature of the new reality, following February 1917 was dual power. Dual power represents an intensification of the actuality of revolution; it means that the working class has organised real institutions that challenge bourgeois power, and that can challenge reification totally. Lenin’s greatest strength was his sensitivity to the practice of the working class. So, it was by listening to and relying on the Petrograd proletariat who overwhelmingly supported the Petrograd Soviet of Soldiers and Workers Deputies against the Provisional Government that he was able to perceive the changed situation.

Lukács, following Lenin, strongly emphasised the soviets. He ascribed to them a number of key functions: firstly, that they break down the separation between economics and politics. Secondly, they overcome the fragmentation of bourgeois society and politics, by literally bringing people together in genuinely powerful assemblies who are responsible for carrying out the decisions they arrive at. Thirdly, they allow the working class to meaningfully connect with other groups in society who don’t organise as workers, but whose interests may coincide with the working class. In Russia, this meant peasants and the national minorities. Today this might mean racially oppressed groups or students.

But the most important thing about dual power is that it provides a political and institutional space in which the working class can articulate itself, and, through discussion, become class conscious.  This is a very specific definition of class consciousness, but being this specific and concrete, I believe, is important. Class consciousness does not just involve hating the boss; it is not just being a strong unionist. It is not even being in sympathy with other oppressed groups, or seeing capitalism as the problem. All of these things are necessary, but by themselves, none of them actually overcome the structural fragmentation of the individuals that make up the working class. None of these things overcome the gap between Marxist ideas and the reality we find ourselves in. We can only really speak of class consciousness when these real contradictions are overcome. This is only possible when the vast majority of the class has access to organisations in which they can debate and develop their ideas. The soviets are just such organisations. As Lukács says, the mediation between theory and practice is organisation.

The soviet form of organisation allows the working class, as Lukács argues in History and Class Consciousness, to freely and consciously choose to support a political party that is based in its ranks and that expresses its interests completely. That is, in 1917, the working class was able to compare and decide between different competing political perspectives that claimed to represent their interests, and choose the one they felt to be most genuine and effective. This was Bolshevism.


This is where we can both conclude and return to the starting point of this article. At the very beginning of his career, Marx criticised theory that was isolated from practice, and this led to his major breakthrough. His insight transformed revolutionary theory – this is why it is still so essential to us. Marxism, in its separation from the workers’ movement – a state which has cursed us at least since the last great World War – represents theory estranged from practice. Our chief possession is a critique of capitalism, based upon the standpoint of the proletariat, and a theoretical generalisation of the history of the workers’ movement. But this is also our biggest weakness; theory by itself is grey and dead.

This is why crisis, class struggle and dual power is so important. Crisis can open a period in history where a collective working class subject can form. This collective working class subject can alter these structures, and fundamentally change them. In other words, a type of revolutionary working class practice can arise that can objectively understand the system and overthrow it. To do so, it needs to base its power on the workplace – the economy – and use this base to smash the state, that is, the political sphere, which is the last line of defence for the system.

In order to do this, it is necessary that the working class becomes conscious. This can only happen via soviets. And, in order for this to happen, it is necessary that there be a party which understands revolutionary theory and is capable of relating it to the concrete needs of workers’ struggle in the actuality of revolution. Organised revolutionary Marxists of various traditions attempt to lay the basis today for this party.

This unity of theory and practice – praxis – was attained in October 1917, when the Bolshevik Party led the working class to place soviets in power. This was subsequently lost in the 1920s, as Stalinism and state-capitalism rose in the USSR. And thus, our theory of history and our theory of revolution remains a generalisation of this high-point in human history.

One final comment about this theory is needed. The theory of revolution I have presented is essentially a generalisation on the Russian experience. One could well add other examples – Germany between 1918 and 1923 or Spain between 1936 and 1937, to name two. But the point is that precisely because Marxism is the theory of workers’ revolution, it has only been possible to develop Marxism as a result of workers’ struggle. Therefore, we have to accept a few caveats about this theory. Our theory is objectively abstract and utopian. This is not to say it’s not true, or that we should reject it. Indeed, rhetoric about how everything is new, and how we must adapt our theory to this, is too often a cover for the impatient abandonment of Marxism for whatever fashion is going around.

But yet, my point is that as new revolutionary situations arise, we need to be alive to the fact that working class practice will run ahead of our theory. This is a theme that has been developed in a series of articles in the Marxist Left Review by Sandra Bloodworth, with one contribution by myself. And the best guarantee that we have of comprehending history as it moves, not to mention contributing to it, is to possess as dialectical and thorough-going theory as possible. This is why engagement with Hegel, Marx, Lukács, Gramsci, and others remains vital for the Marxist left.

1. Indeed, Marx did not believe in “natural” needs; all needs are always already socially generated.
2. Hegel’s critique of abstract freedom – which emerges in a number of locations in The Phenomenology of Spirit – is the source for this aspect of Marx’s critique.
3. This should not be understood to mean, in the crude idealist sense, that nature would not exist were it not for labour. Rather, Marx means – following Hegel – that we are fundamentally united with nature, and that everything we know and experience about nature is developed through labour. In a sense, we are nature become conscious. An example of the social production of senses is that we now have the ability to perceive ultra-violet light. Amongst the senses, Marx also includes senses like a culinary or mineralogical sense.
4. This also meant that feudal ideology focused on the body in a way that modern ideology doesn’t. See, for example, the cult of relics common to Catholicism, or the personal aggrandizement of the nobility and the importance of costume in contrast to the other strata of society.
5. Perhaps a telling fact is that virtually every work dedicated to defending the base/superstructure paradigm spends more time defending itself against the charge of reductionism than anything. In contrast, Lukács builds a superbly concrete and robust theoretical system without ever using these categories in anything more than a passing and superficial way.
6. This hints towards the possibility that Marxism might appropriate a certain insight from existentialism. In the existentialist tradition, including Heidegger, Camus and Sartre, confronting or considering death (in various ways) provokes us to confront our authentic being, our freedom, and the contingency and absurdity of the world of phenomena, or things. Of course, in the existentialist tradition, this occurs entirely at the individual level – and do not intend to pass comment on this theory here.
But perhaps it is legitimate to say that, at a collective level, when a class or social layer is collectively confronted with death, as the working class was in World War One, or as African-Americans are through the experience of police violence, this can produce a certain experience of authenticity on a social level. That is to say, through the experience of the real possibility of death, the quotidian stability of social reality can be torn asunder for a class or social layer. This of course does not necessarily lead to progressive consequences – but it is at the very least a clear bellwether of a deep social radicalisation.
7. To be clear – this process may stall or recede. I am not making any strong predictions about the future of struggle in Greece or anywhere else!

Further reading:

How capitalism works – and doesn’t work

How capitalist ideology works

Marxist Left Review



  1. I like the prominence given to Lukacs. Lukacs had a huge impact on “the ’68 generation” and then virtually vanished in terms of left discourse. To me, he is of absolutely vital importance. ‘History and Class Consciousness’ may not be regarded as easy to read, but it merits reading over and over, as does much of his other political work.

    Lukacs’ work is vital for understanding how capitalist ideology works. And his work on the dialectic between theory and practice is vital and remains highly relevant because it’s not fixed in a certain time like a lot of other people’s work (e.g. Trotsky) is.

    I didn’t get round to reading HCC until I was in my late 30s and yet I had been active since I was 14. If I had’ve read him earlier, I might have avoided quite a few mistakes! Anyway, this article makes me want to dig out my Lukacs collection and go through it again.

    Mention of Jakubowski is also significant. He seems a hardly known figure these days, yet his work on historical materialism is vital.

    I think one of the tragedies of the 1920s is that the way the Russian Revolution went splintered the movement in all kinds of directions and revolutionaries became divided from each other in often hostile camps. The works of Rubin, Grossman, Jakubowski, Korsch, Lukacs, Gramsci and others need to be woven together. There is a world of vibrant, highly relevant thinker-doers quite outside the old Trotsky-Stalin divide that still preoccupies (and wastes the time of) a lot of the far left.


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