What is to be done?

NICK.HOLDEN at geo2.poptel.org.uk NICK.HOLDEN at geo2.poptel.org.uk
Fri Aug 16 16:57:05 MDT 1996

Carrol said...
>     On Nick's closing question: "What is to be done?"
>     Lenin did not, quite, sit down before a blank sheet of paper in
> a vacuum and simply stare at that question at the top. I doubt
> that even mathematicians, the closest activity to a Platonic model
> of intellection, do that.
>     As Mao (a wonderful man with words, whatever his other virtues and
> failings) put it, Ideas don't drop from heaven..
>     As you probably know, Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto on
> *assignment* from the Communist League (correct title?). There is
> correspondence from the Central Committee of the League to them
> asking them why the hell they weren't getting along with the job
> faster. I have a book hidden somewhere on my shelves, both title
> and author temporararily forgotten since I read it over a decade
> ago, that argues quite convincingly (as I recall my responses to
> it) that Marx's developing theory was tied very closely indeed
> to the concrete working class struggles of the early 19th century--
> more tightly to those struggles than to either Hegel or Ricardo.
> He could have (as it were) "invented Marxism" without the latter
> (Hegel and Ricardo) but not without the former, the European
> working class and its struggles.

My understanding is that Marx & Engels were very keen on emphasising this
very fact. Engels in particular, writing about Capital, explains that it is
a product of its time.

The well-known Marx quote about him not being a Marxist, I think, arises
>from this very point. He was trying to illustrate the fact that, while he
was capable of applying a radical critique to the political economy of
Ricardo, et al., he was himself, a prisoner of his own age - the best of it,
perhaps, but not able to transcend it.

The same is true of all of us. Lenin says somewhere that each age throws up
the leaders it deserves, and in some ways this is true - right now, in an
era of decay among the workers' movements, the leaders are among the worst
charlatans and small-minded tricksters we've ever had to face. And in the
1840's, a time of revolutionary upsurge, up sprung Marx & Engels in a
position to be able to make sense of it all.

Further, the pace of Marx & Engels' production of theoretical work goes in
tandem with their practical activity. That's partly why Karl's response to
my question over 'observer status' in the class struggle will not do - Marx
& Engels wrote more theoretical work, the busier they were with the
practical work of organising the Communist League or the International
Working Men's Association.

>     I'm moving towards Louis P's point(s) re the emergence of
> party (and theory) from mass movements--not the emergence of
> mass movements from pre-party grouplets or biblical theory.

Which is why I think you are wrong to write off the Labour Party in the UK,
which still functions as a mass workers' movement, albeit one with bourgeois
ideology pervading it.

Having said that, your description of Louis' theory does not sound
sufficiently dielectical to me. I was not here for the original
contributions, but I think the above is unnecessarily divisive. I would
suggest that Marx & Engels' original thesis about the communist party still
stands - that it should be the synthesis of the workers' mass movement with
the current of thinking Marxists.

Louis' rendering of this makes the mistake of discounting the contribution
to be made by the current of thinking Marxists. If this were valid - i.e.
party and theory derive from mass movements, then there would have been no
need for Marx, and no need for the struggle to form the Bolshevik party.

History suggests, from the number of times the working class has failed to
take power (e.g. Germany in the 1920s, and Spain in the 1930s), that simply
mass movements of workers by themselves is not enough. I would take from
these historical lessons, the idea that the working class, left to itself,
forms mass movements which cannot assume the mantle of leadership
succesfully in times of fundamental levels of class struggle.

We could perhaps discuss why this is. Some on the reformist left like to
denounce Leninism at this point, and say, "Ahah! You don't think the workers
are up to the job." The truth, as ever, is more complex than that. The
working class is not a single homogenous mob that can act as one, without
any need for training or education - if this were so, every industrial
country would have had its October by now.

The leading elements of the class are capable of leading the struggle, but
by definition, the mass movement is slow to follow. Without resolute
leadership, those sections of the class most influenced by bourgeois
ideology will tremble at a crucial moment, and all will be lost. This is not
a criticism of the workers concerned, but a recognition that classes are
made up of human beings, not machines.

So we have a dilemma: how to merge the leading elements of the class into an
organisation sufficiently steeled in the theory of revolution to be able to
carry it out in practice, *without* forging a sect.

This is difficult, but it has to be done. Otherwise, by leaving the
revolution solely to the mass movement, you are inviting defeat.

>     And further: not only does true (correct, adequate) theory
> have to emerge from struggles in the first place; unlike biblical
> theory, communist theory (established communist theory) must be
> endlessly re-learned from the midst of struggle. That is one
> reason Hugh's endless quotations rang so hollow (even when they
> were correct quotes of correct theory)--those (most) of us reading
> them in abstraction from any even verbally shared political practice
> could only see them as Words words words words: electronic blips
> which only had meaning when caught in the web of our neurons...ince

Yes, although we have a massive advantage of Marx, Engels, Lenin and the
rest - we have a series of practical examples to study. We can learn how to
do it (1917), how not to do it (Spain & Germany), and also pick up useful
pointers from all sorts of other Marxist and quasi-Marxist movements
throughout the last hundred years.

We do not, for example, have to go through the process of debating whether
or not strikes are harmful to the Labour movement (just one of the ideas
which Marx had to polemicise against during the 1830s and 1840s).
Generations of workers learn from those who went before them about the basic
tenets of class identity. We do, however, have to find ways of enabling this
generation to go further than the one that went before.

So, as you said at the beginning, we are not starting with a blank piece of
paper. The lessons of the past can be useful, provided that we learn from
them, not just recite them.

>     Anyhow, I can't answer your question exactly.

I suspect no-one can, exactly. But we can grope forward, testing our ideas
in practice, and learning from the results, seeking to combine theory and
practice in a recognisable whole.

Comradely regards,


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