Some Distinctions

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Tue Jan 2 08:30:59 MST 2001

I'm not too satisfied with the argument(s) of this post, but I think
they point in a direction that discussion needs to proceed.

Two rather different topics are being rather jumbled together in this
cluster of threads on religion etc. One topic or cluster of topics would
be the actual role of religious believers in socialist revolution. That
of course would be rather large and it is a bit silly even to argue
about it. There should, for example, be no need to argue for the
importance of Malcolm X to the left in the United States. Let me haul
out here my favorite passage from Lenin (in "Social-Democracy and the
Provisional Revolutionary Government" CW 8, 291-92):

Such a composition of the social basis of the possible and desirable
revolutionary-democratic dictatorship will, of course, affect the
composition of the revolutionary government and inevitably lefad to the
participation, or even predominance, within it of the most heterogeneous
representatives of revolutionary democracy. It would be extremely
harmful to entertain any illusions on this score. If tha windbag Trotsky
now writes (unfortunately, side by side with Parvus) that "a Father
Gapon could appear only once," that "there is no room for a second
Gapon," he does so simply because he is a windbag. If there were no room
in Russia for a second Gapon, there would be no room for a truly
"great," consummated democratic revolution.****

Lenin's essay is concretely grounded in the events in Russia in 1905,
but the general principle from which he operates here holds not just in
the "democratic revolution" but in all mass movements of any sort, as
long as capitalism (in whatever form) lasts. Not only are the
revolutionary masses not made up strictly of marxists, even the
revolutionary leadership cannot be confined to Marxists. And in a nation
so (unfortunately) dominated by at least nominal Christian belief as the
U.S. that means that many revolutionary leaders will be adherents of
Christianity (or Islam or ...). That is fundamental and to be taken for

But though Marxists (numerically) play a minority role in the
revolutionary movement, I believe that role is crucial and special.
There are tasks for Marxists that only Marxists can fulfill, and the
performance of those tasks, even the identification of those tasks,
involves extensive discussion and debate, even heated debate,  _among
Marxists_. Now to have a discussion among "Group X" clearly requires
some sort of definition, some sort of criteria of inclusion in Group X,
and equally clearly there is going to be debate about those criteria.
The borderlines will be fuzzy rather than cleancut. We are now engaged
in a debate over that fuzzy borderline. And the particular focus of the
debate is in some ways so unusual among Marxists that we lack even a
satisfactory label for some of the positions involved.

For example, I used the word "spiritualism" in a sense that would hardly
be recognized in the OED. As I used it, it was a nonce term, applicable
(barely so) only within the context of this present discussion on the
marxism list. And I used it as a preliminary or rough characterization
of an attitude that I think is seriously disruptive of conversations
among Marxists. Those so characterized are certainly comrades, they are
communists, but I can't really trust them to mean what they say they
mean in any discussion of Marxist principle. (I came across the term
"spiritual" just a few days ago in my rereading of the _Grundrisse_,
someplace in the first 150 pages of MECW 28. Unfortunately I didn't make
a note of it and can't find it now, but I think it was in relationship
not to any internal feelings of an individual but to the nature of
money. Among the many features of money is a very real spiritual power,
a power present in but separable from the activity of money. I would
like to keep the word (in discussions among Marxists) to such uses --
i.e., in application to social relations.

It is simply meaningless when applied the feelings, private or
otherwise, of individuals, _unless_ it is meant to refer to some
non-natural and non-historical element in history and to the recognition
of that element by an individual. And such a claim is transparently
anti-marxist (though _not_, I repeat, necessarily non-communist,
non-revolutionary). No such element, entity, being, etc. etc. etc.
exists and someone who claims that such an element exists is to that
extent out of touch with reality. That isn't a bad thing in itself, of
course, since we are all out of touch with reality in many ways. We
fumble along as we can. But there is no non-historical spirit in the
world, the cosmos, or the individual, and to say otherwise denies
marxism, denies historical materialism as a way of understanding the


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