Against philosopher-kings

The party we need must be based on a Marxist programme, argues Mike Macnair, not 'Marxist philosophy'

This is the second part of my reply to comrade John Robinson’s “comradely criticism” of my book Revolutionary strategy. In the first part (published in the November 27 issue of this paper), I argued that comrade Robinson’s ideas were at root the common coin of the post-1956 ‘new left’ and that these ideas are part of the weakness of the current left. Comrade Robinson’s view of the capitalist state, I argued, is ultra-leftist. But it belongs to a type of ultra-leftism that can all too easily flip over, as it has in the larger British far-left groups, into an opportunist economism.

Comrade Robinson’s fetishises soviets as the key to the development of ‘communist consciousness’; the moment of revolutionary crisis when the capitalist state loses its political authority; and ‘dual power’ à la Russia 1917. The moment is counterposed to the gradual development of the workers’ movement before the outbreak of revolutionary crisis. This latter phase is necessary if revolutionary crisis is to pose the question of workers’ power, as opposed to just a restructuring of the capitalist order. The concrete result of the fetishisation of the revolutionary moment is to prevent the left doing the work it needs to do now - to build up a workers’ movement independent of the capitalists and their states.

As I said at the end of that article, this “is to move onto the terrain of the dialectic”. The point is that revolutionary crisis in society is an example of the Hegelian “transition from quantity to quality” - or, if one prefers to avoid Hegelian terminology, a ‘phase transition’ (borrowed from thermodynamics), ‘catastrophe’ (borrowed from ‘catastrophe theory’) or ‘tipping point’.1 The phrase “transition from quantity to quality” has the disadvantage of Hegelianism. But it has the helpful aspect of drawing attention precisely to the fact that crisis emerges out of prior, gradual processes, which are perfectly identifiable while they are going on, even if they may happen not to be noticed until the outbreak of crisis.

Comrade Robinson argues that “no organisation is capable of leading a communist revolution unless it is firmly based on Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism)”.2 In particular, he quotes Trotsky for the proposition that: “Scientific socialism (Marxism) is the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process; namely, the instinctive and elemental drive of the proletariat to reconstruct society on communist beginnings.”3

Comrade Robinson goes on: “Note that the ‘unconscious historical processes’ referred to by Trotsky above must include the struggles of the working class which result in the creation of soviets and dual power situations. What is important here is that when the working class creates soviets and dual power situations it does so without realising the significance of what it has done. Also that it has objectively raised the question of state power. It must be a central aspect of Marxist philosophy that the working class acts first and thinks about what it has done afterwards.”

These ideas are profoundly mistaken. In the first place, an organisation “firmly based on Marxist philosophy” cannot possibly lead a communist revolution. To base an organisation on commitment to specific philosophical ideas is to build a sect of the sort condemned by Marx and Engels and to follow the path of Bogdanov, not Lenin.

Secondly, the claim about the movement of class-consciousness - “it must be a central aspect of Marxist philosophy that the working class acts first and thinks about what it has done afterwards” - takes a partial truth and elevates it to such a level of generality that it is actually directly opposed to claims explicitly made by Marx.

Behind these ideas - as with comrade Robinson’s ultra-leftist approach to the state, and fetishisation of soviets - lie the attempts of the ‘new left’ to pursue an immediate revolutionary perspective in conditions in which the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was not on the immediate agenda: those of the cold war and ‘long boom’.

Philosophy can only divide us

Althusser, in his essay ‘Lenin and philosophy’, cites (imprecisely) a letter from Lenin to Maxim Gorky, responding to an invitation to Capri, where Gorky had asked Lenin to discuss philosophy. Lenin replied (according to Althusser) that he would like to see Gorky, but refused to discuss philosophy. Althusser made the point that Lenin’s refusal to discuss philosophy was partly tactical. The Bolsheviks, said Althusser, needed unity at this point: philosophy, in contrast, is inherently divisive.4

The point Lenin made is, in fact, a little stronger. On March 24 1908, he wrote to Gorky arguing that the fight over philosophy must be kept separate from the Bolshevik faction and its publications. “A fight” over the philosophical issues, he says, “is absolutely inevitable. And party people should devote their efforts not to slurring it over, putting it off or dodging it, but to ensuring that essential party work does not suffer in practice ...

“How is this to be done? By ‘neutrality’? No. There cannot and will not be any neutrality on such an issue. If it is possible to speak of neutrality, it can only be in a relative sense: we must separate all this fight from the faction ... Only so will the faction not be committed, not be involved, not be compelled tomorrow or the day after to decide, to vote - ie, to turn the fight into a chronic, protracted, hopeless affair.” It is at the end of this letter that he wrote: “I shall most certainly come to Capri and try to bring my wife along, only I should like to do this independently of the philosophical fight.”5

By April 16, Lenin had decided against going to Capri. “A talk on other matters than philosophy won’t come off now: it would be unnatural. Incidentally, if these other matters - not philosophical, but Proletary matters, for example - really demand talks just now, and at your place, I could come (I don’t know whether I shall find the money: there are difficulties at present), but I repeat: only on condition that I do not speak about philosophy or religion.”6

As a Stalinist and therefore a believer in the myth of Bolshevik party continuity between 1903 and 1917, Althusser slightly misunderstood the political context. Lenin was, in fact, in process of making a political split with the Vpered tendency led by Bogdanov, to which Gorky and other advocates of a philosophical criticism of Marx belonged. But the underlying point is true. Lenin’s philosophical work which accompanied the split, Materialism and empirio-criticism (MEC), was not the ground of the split. This ground was political: the Vpered tendency advocated a return to the tactic of boycotting duma elections, and on this question Lenin and his co-thinkers were in (partial) agreement with the Menshevik faction.7

MEC was, moreover, a defensive and negative response to philosophical arguments which were being produced by the ‘boycottist’ camp to justify a ‘strategy of the offensive’ or minority-action approach. Bogdanov and his allies, relying on various philosophical criticisms of materialist ‘reductionism’, stressed the role of the revolutionary will and revolutionary ethics and mythos - as did the contemporary left-syndicalist writers, Georges Sorel and Arturo Labriola. In general, the people who were insisting on debating philosophy in the international socialist movement at this time were the right (on the basis of Bernstein’s criticisms of Marx’s alleged Hegelian teleology, etc) and the syndicalist and semi-syndicalist left.8

Lenin, in MEC, defended the philosophical arguments of Plekhanov and - behind him - Engels. But at no point did he insist on philosophical ideas as the basis of organisation. On the contrary, the letters to Gorky imperfectly cited by Althusser show him insisting that philosophy must be kept separate from the political issues and the basis of political organisation.

Philosophy can only divide us. The same point can be put in a different way in the words of Marx’s first and 11th Theses on Feuerbach: “The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism - but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such.” And: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”9

Philosophy - as such - is inherently only a way of interpreting the world. It is mental reflection on such topics as the nature of human knowledge (epistemology) and whether there are real entities and laws behind the perceptible world (ontology), morality, etc, in abstraction from the concrete praxis of changing the world: ie, material productive activity, experimental science and political activity. Precisely because philosophy as such is individual reflection in complete abstraction from concrete sensuous engagement with the recalcitrant, perceptible world, quot homines tot sententiae: there are as many conclusions as there are individuals.

A party founded on philosophy will therefore inevitably be a party of one. Of course, this is not invariably manifest. An individual may found a ‘school’ or cult, like religious prophets. Or an individual may become the guru of the group originally founded for political purposes, like Gerry Healy in the Workers Revolutionary Party or Kanichi Kuroda in comrade Robinson’s favourite group, the Japan Revolutionary Communist League (Kakumaru). The guru is a philosopher king - as Plato imagined the role of Dion of Syracuse, and with the same disastrous results. In the end, only one mind can fix meaning to philosophical ideas. If philosophy is to be a direct guide to the action of more than one individual, other minds must be subordinated to this one mind.

In contrast, grounding knowledge in praxis and “the point is to change it” is anti-authoritarian or democratic in character. The ideas in individuals’ heads converge on the test of practice, enabling communication.10 Ideas can also be corrected by the test of practice. The artisan-builder may prove to know more effective mechanics than the Aristotle scholar, the navigator more about the shape of the world than the Ptolemaic astronomer. The ground level grunts working in the party branches and trade unions may have a better view of real political dynamics than the ‘experts’ at the centre - if only they had a means of pooling their knowledge. In this context open discussion and democratic decision-making yield a better, more effective understanding of the world and more ability to change it.

The maintenance of philosophical ‘orthodoxy’ under the philosopher-king yields the exact opposite. What is reported upwards to the guru will be only what he wants to hear: indeed, he will filter out information which does not fit with his philosophy. The result is GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Put another way, it is the grotesqueries of Stalinist ‘planning’; or the ridiculously exaggerated claims of groups like the JRCL (Kakumaru) or the British WRP or Socialist Workers Party, as to their own social weight and political importance.

As individuals we cannot, of course, avoid ‘doing philosophy’ or arguing about philosophical questions. The moment of abstraction - thinking about or imagining what we are about to do - is an unavoidable element of pretty much all action except sleepwalking, etc. But we can avoid creating a philosophical orthodoxy, which inherently imports the role of the philosopher-king. We can organise, not on the basis of theory, but on the basis of programme: concrete proposals for how to change the world.

Hence I reject out of hand comrade Robinson’s idea that “no organisation is capable of leading a communist revolution unless it is firmly based on Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism)”. The reverse is the case. An organisation founded, as such, on philosophical commitments (or on other very precise theoretical commitments, like ‘orthodox Trotskyism’) leads only to small-scale imitations of Stalinism.

It follows from this that in my response to comrade Robinson on the question of consciousness, which will form most of the rest of this article, I necessarily offer only my view, not the ‘CPGB view’. The argument is, moreover, primarily negative. It is not a positive theory of consciousness. Such a theory will be produced by neuroscientists, evolutionary theorists, experimental psychologists and so on, working in cooperation and conflict, not by some leftist engaging in political-journalistic speculation. It is merely an argument that the left should break with the terms of the ‘new left’ view of consciousness defended by comrade Robinson, among many others.

Comrade Robinson writes that “when the working class creates soviets and dual power situations it does so without realising the significance of what it has done. Also that it has objectively raised the question of state power. It must be a central aspect of Marxist philosophy that the working class acts first and thinks about what it has done afterwards.” He gives May-June 1968 as an example.

Conscious and unconscious

The first level of this problem is that the historical claim is flatly false. It is perfectly clear that broad masses of the Russian working class in February 1917 consciously intended to get rid of tsarism, and that broad masses of the German, Hungarian and Austrian working classes in 1918-19 consciously intended to get rid of the half-reformed absolutist monarchies under which they lived. In the same way, though the revolution was started by a coup, broad masses of the Portuguese working class rallied to the coup-makers against threatened counter-coups, because they consciously wanted to get rid and stay rid of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship.

Conversely, broad masses of the French working class in May 68 had not come to the conclusion that it was necessary to get rid of the Fifth Republic or even of de Gaulle. They simply wanted to get rid of the role of the CRS riot police and the repression of strikes, etc. For this reason May-June 68 did not pose the question of power and was not a revolutionary crisis in the strong sense.

In 1917 the Bolsheviks - with the aid of the conduct of the Menshevik and SR leaderships - persuaded broad masses of workers and soldiers that ‘All power to the soviets’ was the only way out of the crisis. The conscious decisions of these broad masses were reflected in local elections, in soviet elections, and in the growth of support for the Left Social Revolutionaries and Menshevik Internationalists at the expense of the Right SRs and Menshevik Defencists. The result was broad support for the October revolution.

In contrast, in 1919 in Germany and Austria workers’ councils were created, but the Social Democrats persuaded broad masses of workers and soldiers that the only way forward to secure the gains of the revolution was to create a parliamentary republic and the rule of law in coalition with the centre parties. Supporting the Social Democrats was a decision consciously made by millions of workers. This was a wrong decision, for which the workers paid an enormously heavy price in 1933-45. But being wrong is not the same thing as acting ‘unconsciously’.

If we look back at the passage of Trotsky which comrade Robinson quotes, the fact is that Trotsky, or his translator,11 has made exactly this mistake. In calling Marxism “the conscious expression”, he confuses consciousness with scientific thought. In calling proletarian class struggle an “unconscious historical process” and an “instinctive and elemental drive”, he confuses conscious decisions taken without an adequate scientific theory to support them with unconscious actions of the autonomic nervous system, habits or animal behaviour.

Forming trade unions, going on strike, etc are conscious acts: they are not analogous to sleepwalking, the processes of digestion, ‘instinctive’ animal behaviour, or the Freudian or Jungian Unconscious. The logic of capitalist society pushes the working class towards organising collectively to defend common interests, just as it pushes capitalists towards ‘cost-cutting’ attacks on the working class. But there remains a conscious choice, to organise or to ‘put up with’ the capitalist order. Trade unions and workers’ political parties do not ‘just happen’ automatically: making them happen involves (at a minimum) activists at the base consciously persuading other people to join them and to stay members.

Trotsky would have been right if he had written: ‘Scientific socialism (Marxism) is the scientific expression of the untheorised historical process; namely, the empirical attempts of the proletariat to defend its collective interests, which logically implies the proletariat taking political power and beginning to reconstruct society on communist beginnings.’

I said at the beginning of this article that comrade Robinson’s point is a partial truth. The partial truth is this: that the working class organising to defend its common interests objectively threatens the interests of the capitalist class - whether or not the workers, when they organise, understand this. When matters become acute, the capitalists will take action to suppress working class organisation, and the choices available will then reduce themselves to the working class forcibly repressing capitalist resistance and taking over to rule society itself, or the capitalists suppressing working class self-organisation and ‘rolling back’ the concessions previously made to the working class.

It is for this reason that working class organisation to defend common interests logically implies the overthrow of capitalist rule and the institution of working class rule (the dictatorship of the proletariat).

But to say that something is logically in people’s interests or logically implied by those interests is not to say that they have an unconscious or instinctive drive towards this outcome. To give a very simple example, it would clearly be beneficial to my health to stop smoking. This does not imply that I have an unconscious tendency to stop smoking (or even an unconscious tendency to want to stop smoking). No more does the fact that working class organisation to defend common interests logically implies the overthrow of capitalist rule mean that the working class constantly and instinctively aspires to overthrow capitalist rule, but is merely ‘held back’ by the social democrats, Stalinists, Pabloites, etc from doing so.

Basing organisations on philosophy necessarily leads to the role of the philosopher-king. Similarly, the idea of Marxism as “the conscious expression” of the “instinctive and elemental drive of the proletariat to reconstruct society on communist beginnings” necessarily implies that the unconscious masses are to be subordinated to the conscious minority. And this in turn implies that the less conscious (“less advanced”) ranks of the party are to be subordinated to the more conscious (“more advanced”) leadership: a conclusion reached in the Theses of the second and third congresses of the Comintern on the role of parties in the proletarian revolution and on party organisation.12

Marxism is not ‘consciousness’, as opposed to mass ‘unconsciousness’, but the use of methods of science to grasp the logic of the historical process as a whole, and thereby assist the masses in taking their own conscious decisions. Hence the argument for a top-down party to which the ‘unconscious’ masses are subordinate wholly falls to the ground. It does so because the methods of science necessarily involve critical reason and the subordination of hypotheses to experimental testing. Hence, an opposition may be right against the majority; the ranks may be right against the leadership; and the unorganised masses may be right against the organised party (or union, or whatever). May be: this fact is not an argument against organising at all, or against treating majority decisions as binding decisions for common action.


Comrade Robinson would no doubt retort that recognising the masses as conscious actors is to depart from materialism. He writes: “Materialists start from the premise that all thought is a reflection, however distorted, of a material world which has objective existence independent of human consciousness” - a formulation taken from MEC, though not exactly in Lenin’s terms.

The problem is, of course, that human action is a part of the material world, as comrade Robinson half-recognises: “The adjective ‘dialectical’ implies the self-movement of the material world, which of course contains human society and its self-movement.”

Comrade Robinson goes on to argue: “Those who are unable to free themselves from bourgeois methods of thought often start from the belief that by projecting their own thought onto the world they can thereby change it.” This fear of idealism lies behind his insistence that “the working class acts first and thinks about what it has done afterwards”.

With these formulations both on “reflection” and on “projecting their own thought onto the world”, comrade Robinson has gone backwards from the arguments of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach to a contemplative-philosophical version of materialism. Karl Marx must be taken to have been “unable to free [himself] from bourgeois methods of thought” in the first thesis on Feuerbach, or when he wrote that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”13

‘Materialism’, in the sense of Marxist materialism, has more than one level. The most basic level is that it is unnecessary to suppose the existence of god or gods, a ‘world-spirit’, the Hegelian self-moving Idea, spirits, the existence of the soul, the élan vital, or an immaterial homunculus ‘consciousness’ which sits in the human body and drives it as a motorist drives a car. The phenomena can be adequately explained by the methods of the sciences without any such suppositions. The ideas in my head are electro-chemical phenomena in my brain which are part of an embodied consciousness, which has developed through the physical (Darwinian) and social evolution of the human species. The words I am writing are - as I write them - electrical patterns in the computer; when they are printed they will be patterns of ink on the printed page. They are just as material as trees, etc.

At a second level, within this framework, material forces in the real world vary in power. The power of the ideas in my head, or the words I write, is very limited. Using the methods of the sciences requires us to presuppose the real existence, or more exactly the recalcitrance, of the material world outside our heads.14 If I had the idea that I could walk on water, it would not prevent me getting wet. If I do not have the idea of a tree in front of me (because I am not looking where I am going) I will walk into the tree and injure myself. It is this fundamental point which Bogdanov and his co-thinkers denied, and which Lenin defended in a muddled way in MEC.

Hence, within the framework of praxis - of ‘the active side’ and “the point is to change it” - materialism implies that ideas are commonly more powerful to the extent that they are adapted to the external forces in the material world and applied to manipulate these forces. The idea of a stone hand-axe is a means to various human actions to change the world. From this small starting point begins what develops into the massive physical powers of modern technology (the forces of production ...). The idea of a hand-axe and of how to make one - together with the materials to do so - is more powerful than a dream of eating meat or spells cast by a shaman.

This leads in turn to the third level of materialism. This is that social orders and dynamics are in the last analysis governed by technology (the forces of production) and the material division of labour (the relations of production) as means to satisfy very basic human needs (food, shelter, etc). In the last analysis, because, for example, though medieval England and Japan were both characterised by feudal social orders, these were markedly different from one another, and even now, under globalisation, both Japanese capitalism and Japanese language and culture are profoundly different from their British equivalents.15

But in the last analysis is still true. When a social order fails to deliver on basic human needs on a large scale - or even merely makes masses of people worse off - its legitimacy, people’s willingness to accept or put up with it, is threatened. This threat need not lead to support for communism, because it can equally lead to support for reactionary politics of nostalgia. But the idea that language and cultural background overrides the pressures of providing for human needs - commonly held by post-modernists and suchlike - is a flat-earthism.

It should be apparent from this that materialism does not in the least imply or require either (a) that ideas are merely ‘reflections’ of the material world and do not change it or (b) that the working class acts first and thinks about it afterwards. ‘Reflections’ comes from the defects of MEC. But where does the idea that the working class acts first and thinks afterwards come from?

New leftism

The ‘new left’ emerged in the late 1950s from the crisis of the communist parties in the wake of Hungary 1956. The world into which it emerged was that of the cold war. Hungary dramatised the domination of the Soviet bloc by the Stalinist bureaucracy. In the ‘first world’ - the imperialist countries and their ‘advanced’ neighbours - there were mass workers’ organisations (in the US only trade unions; everywhere else also workers’ parties of one sort or another - which were similarly dominated by the bureaucracy). The colonial and semi-colonial ‘third world’ was characterised by anti-colonial struggles and the appearance of left-talking nationalist-Bonapartist regimes, to one degree or another influenced by Stalinism.

Under these conditions the ‘classical Marxist’ revolutionary perspective of building up the working class’s independent organisation until it could challenge for power appeared meaningless. There were, after all, massive working class organisations - but tied, through the bureaucracies, either directly to the capitalist states or to Moscow, ‘socialism in one country’ and ‘peaceful coexistence’.

Moreover, there was negligible political support within the masses for the perspective of the working class taking over. The majority deeply distrusted any forces to the left of social democracy and left nationalism. It did so in part because of Stalinism, in part because the capitalists were making real concessions to labour through the existing states. Of those who did not take this view, the overwhelmingly large majority were Stalinists.

Two basic options were open to the non-Stalinist left. The first was to carry on small-scale propaganda and hope, by doing so, to build up forces to the point at which (when political conditions changed) they might have a louder voice.

This was, in essence, the path taken by Militant. The second was to hope that politically low-level mass actions - without a political break with the labour bureaucracy or an aspiration to get rid of the existing order - could lead to revolutionary crisis. Revolutionary crisis would then open up the possibility of the ‘revolutionaries’ winning the masses. This was the path adopted by the ‘new left’.

How to theorise this course of action? The theories that were used argued philosophy, just as Bogdanov and Lunacharsky argued philosophy in order to support their version of ultra-leftism and minority action in 1908-10. They were derived from the syndicalist and semi-syndicalist left before World War I, and from elements in the early Comintern associated with the ultra-lefts: whether they actually became Left Communists (like Korsch) or later withdrew from ultra-leftism towards what became Stalinism (like Lukács and Gramsci). For the organised groups which have survived since the 1950s-60s, full anarcho-syndicalist or council communist positions were rejected: instead, elements of the Left Communists’ theories which justified minority action and the minority ‘vanguard party’ were adopted. But these theories carried in their DNA both sectism and guru-cultism, for the reasons already given.

Today, the left lives in a world in which Stalinism has fallen; capital is no longer offering major concessions to the working class; and the once impressive edifice of the mass workers’ parties and trade unions has been eviscerated by increasing bureaucratic and state control, further marginalising local initiative. Under these conditions ‘new left’ philosophical ideas - paradoxical as it may seem - serve to reinforce the labour bureaucracy and, through it, to give indirect support to capital.


1. M Gladwell The tipping point Boston 2000.
2. ‘Succumbing to reformism’, October 30.
3. L Trotsky In defence of Marxism New York 1975, p129.
4. L Althusser Lenin and philosophy and other essays London 1971, pp23-26.
5. VI Lenin CW Vol 34, pp388-90: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mar/24mg.htm
6. Ibid p393: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/apr/16mg.htm
7. P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party London 1990, pp144-56 has a relatively full account of the grounds of the split.
8. It is rather striking that Sorel actually shared Bernstein’s criticisms of the mainstream Marxists on questions of method, while parting company with Bernstein on the practical conclusions of these criticisms: J Jennings (ed) Reflections on violence Cambridge 1999 passim.
9. Cyril Smith’s 2002 translation: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm
10. L Doyal and R Harris, ‘The practical foundations of human understanding’ New Left Review May-June 1983 (www.newleftreview.org/?view=396) has a useful discussion of this aspect.
11. The translation could be inaccurate: Lars Lih identifies the word ‘consciousness’ in Lenin’s What is to be done? as better translated as ‘awareness’ (L Lih Lenin rediscovered Chicago 2005, chapter 6, especially pp337-39). But this re-translation does not solve the present problem, which is that even using ‘awareness’ there is a danger of confusing consciousness with cognition or scientific reason.
12. www.marxists.org.uk/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch03a.htm; and www.marxists.org.uk/history/international/comintern/3rd-congress/party-theses.htm
13. The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, chapter 1: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm
14. R Bhaskar A realist theory of science (Leeds 1975) presents powerful though difficult arguments for this proposition.
15. Kuroda in Praxiology (Kobushi Shobo 1998) makes exactly this point in the preface as an explanation of the difficulties of translation.