Paul Le Blanc: Explorations in plain Marxism: revolutionary theory, practical action

"For many developing intellectually in the English-speaking world during the early 1960s, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills (on his way to work above) was an incredibly important influence."

For more by Paul Le Blanc, click HERE. For more discussion of Marxist theory, click HERE.

By Paul Le Blanc

January 15, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The ideas of Karl Marx are often put forward as an invaluable resource for those wishing to understand the world in order to change it for the better. Yet various people who speak as Marxists often insist upon divergent ways of understanding even the most basic concepts associated with Marxism – such as capitalism and the working class.

There are also perplexing divergences around such conceptions as ideology, class-consciousness, and the seemingly bizarre concept of labour aristocracy. As if this wasn’t enough, relatively new concepts – identity and intersectionality – have been thrown into the mix.

It’s almost enough to make activists throw up their hands, shout an expletive or two, and walk away. Of course, one can simply jump into activity to make the world a better place while saying “to hell with all these stupid theories.” But this could reduce chances of understanding the world well enough to be able to actually change it positively. Practical action can be most effective if it is guided by certain structures of understanding that correspond to the way the world actually works.

In what follows, controversies among Marxists will be touched on in a manner contributing – I hope – to the development of effective revolutionary socialist perspectives.

C. Wright Mills and structures of understanding

For many of us developing intellectually in the English-speaking world during the early 1960s, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills was an incredibly important influence. While his works – such as The New Men of Power (1949), The Power Elite (1956), The Sociological Imagination (1960) – seem dated in various ways in our own time, their clarity, independence of spirit, and critical edge reward engagement half a century later. My own education as a Marxist was impacted when, in my mid-teens, I poured over his final work, The Marxists (1962).

Mills himself was not, strictly speaking, a Marxist. He had little patience with dialectics, was not inclined to fuss with the complexities of Capital, and concluded that the working class had – certainly by the 1950s – proved itself incapable of bringing about revolutionary change. Yet his own understanding of the world was structured, in large measure, through his own passionate engagement with the work of Karl Marx. As he put it,

The history of social thought since the mid-nineteenth century cannot be understood without understanding the ideas of Marx... He contributed to the categories dealt with by virtually all significant social thinkers of our immediate past... Within the classic tradition of sociology, he provides us with the most basic single framework for political and cultural reflection. Marx was not the sole source of this framework, and he did not complete a system that stands closed and finished. He did not solve all of our problems; some of them he did not even know about. Yet to study his work today and then come back to our own concerns is to increase our chances of confronting them with useful ideas and solutions.[1]

The Marxists offered a stimulating discussion of Marxist theory and history, and excerpts from a diverse range of thinkers associated in one way or another with Marxism. In his critical presentation, Mills made distinctions between different kinds of Marxists. He was inclined to reject two of these – Vulgar Marxists who “seize upon certain ideological features of Marx’s political philosophy and identify these parts as the whole,” and Sophisticated Marxists who are “mainly concerned with Marxism as a model of society and with the theories developed with the aid of this model.”[2]

Mills preferred what he termed Plain Marxists, who “in great travail ... have confronted the world’s problems” and are inclined to be “’open’ (as opposed to dogmatic) in their interpretations and uses of Marxism,” and who do not shy away from confronting “the unresolved tension in Marx’s work – and in history itself: the tension of humanism and determinism, of human freedom and historical necessity.”[3] This approach strongly influences the thinking in the present essay.

Underlying Mills’s approach is an obvious distinction between (1) the infinitely complex swirl of that vast and amazing Everything commonly referred to as reality and (2) the study of that reality, involving theoretical constructs, structures of understanding, that we utilize to make sense of reality. It is possible to use different terminologies and different conceptualizations to define the same complex aspects reality – and nonetheless to come up with insightful and useful understandings of such reality. This outcome is also possible when two self-identified Marxists interpret and develop aspects of Marxist theory in very different ways.

One’s analysis is not necessarily invalidated by the utilization of a different way of defining one or another Marxist term. While there may be validity to both approaches, however, one is superior to the other (as Marxism) to the extent that it conforms to all of the following criteria: (1) accuracy regarding realities being described; (2) clarity in communicating the understanding of reality; (3) coherence in relation to the totality of Marxist theory; (4) usefulness in practical efforts to push back against oppression and to advance the cause of socialism.

This is the approach underlying the following discussion of the terms highlighted at the beginning of this essay. The purpose is to help structure our understanding of reality in order to strengthen practical efforts in the struggle for liberation.


Capitalism has been defined by some recent Marxists in a very particular way. For example, in his outstanding study The American Road to Capitalism, Charles Post has offered a definition that can be summarized as follows: an economic system in which private owners of the economy – the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) – control the means of production (land, raw materials, tools/technology, etc.) and buy the labour-power of basically propertyless wage-workers (the proletariat), in order to produce commodities (products produced for the market, by labour-power being turned into actual labour) that are sold at a profit. A similar approach can be found in a number of other Marxist works – for example, Segmented Work, Divided Workers by David Gordon, Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich, which succinctly defines capitalism as “a wage labour system of commodity production for profit.”[4]

This seems a reasonable description of what happens under capitalism. There is, however, a problem that develops when this definition is applied to history. For example, before the American Civil War (1861-1865) a majority of the labour force in the United States was not made up of wage-workers. The Southern economy was predominantly agricultural, and the bulk of the Southern agricultural labour force was made up of slaves. Combined with the large number of poor white farmers, the great majority of labourers consisted of those who did not sell their labour-power to capitalists – so by this definition, the Southern economy could not be termed capitalism. For that matter, a majority of the Northern labour force from colonial times down to the Civil War was made up of small farmers, artisans and craftsmen, small shopkeepers – only a minority were wage-workers. By definition, it could be argued, capitalism simply did not exist in the United States until 1820s or 1840s or 1860s (which is the position of the afore-mentioned volumes).

The problem is that Marx and Engels themselves believed capitalism did exist in the United States not only after the Civil War, but before – and not only in the ante-bellum “free-labour” North but also in the slave-labour South. Of course, Marx and Engels were only human and could be wrong – although it seems ironic that those who first developed Marxist theory would be so fundamentally wrong in their understanding of how to apply that theory. The problem deepens when we realize that what was true in the United States was true in most of Europe as well, with the exception of England. This was the case when the two revolutionaries wrote the Communist Manifesto, when they were helping to organize the International Workingmen’s Association, and when Marx was writing Capital. It could be argued their analyses of capitalism represented a forecast of the future rather than a prescription for the present – but this is not how they themselves characterized their work.[5]

An additional complication is posed by the question: if it wasn’t capitalism, what form of economy was it? In the slave-plantation South the dynamics of the economy were different from those of the ancient slave economies, nor did they conform to the dynamics of feudalism. Was it some form of economy that Marx and Engels did not conceptualize? (Post thinks so, presenting it as a theoretically revised variant of what the late historian Eugene Genovese termed “pre-bourgeois civilization.”) The same question can be posed regarding the form of economy in the pre-Civil War North and in nineteenth-century Europe. (The above two volumes tag it as a non-capitalist economy of “petty-commodity production”). It is possible to argue that there are better ways of understanding the world than the way Marx and Engels understood it in their day, that they were living – contrary to what they seemed to believe – in a fundamentally pre-capitalist reality. But this suggests a certain incoherence in how this particular definition of capitalism connects with the overall perspectives of Marx and Engels.

On the other hand, the problem may stem from the fact that a reasonable description of mature capitalism does not constitute a reasonable definition of capitalism. Capitalism involves an incredibly dynamic process of development, a process of capital accumulation, transforming the world over and over again, and itself taking on a variety of different forms as it remains true to its own dynamism.

It could be argued that a more useful definition of capitalism (perhaps more consistent, also, with the perspectives of Marx and Engels) might posit four fundamental elements in the capitalist economy, three of which are relatively simple: the economy (means of production combined with labour) is privately owned, more or less controlled by the owners (in the sense that they make decisions regarding economic policy), and the guiding principle of economic decision-making involves maximizing profits of the owners. The fourth element is far more complex: the economy involves generalized commodity production – a buying-and-selling economy, or market economy. Generalized commodity production means that more and more and more aspects of human needs and human life are drawn into commodity production, into the production of goods and services that are created for the purpose of selling them, in order to maximize the profits of the capitalists over and over and over again. Capitalists are driven to develop technology and the production process to create more and more profits. And more and more people in society are forced to turn their ability to work (their life-energy, their strength, their intelligence, their abilities and skills) into a commodity, selling their labour-power in order to “make a living” (to be able to buy commodities they need in order to live, and additional commodities that they want in order to make life more tolerable). This more “open” way of defining capitalism allows for considerably more diversity in the form that capitalism takes, and it captures the incredibly fluid, dynamic “all that is solid melts into air” quality of capitalism referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

As the Civil War writings of Marx and Engels indicate, it is possible for peculiar variants of capitalism to develop which – for example – make the entire labourer (not just his or her ability to work) into a commodity to be bought and sold, as slaves (not just “wage-slaves,” as many free labourers dubbed themselves). The different variants of capitalism yield dramatically different social and cultural differences, just as they are intertwined with dramatically different economic policy needs (high tariffs versus low tariffs, etc.), as well as consequent dramatic differences in political goals, which combined to culminate in the bloody explosion of 1861-1865. Moving back further, as Adam Smith’s 1776 classic Wealth of Nations indicates, capitalism exists before a majority of the labour force is transformed into a wage-earning proletariat. And as Leon Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development suggests, different modes of production can combine in a variety of peculiar ways to create an unstable economic, cultural, and political mix, often with explosive consequences, especially given capitalism’s incredible dynamism. To utilize a relatively simple definition of capitalism, then, does not necessarily whisk away complications and contradictions in reality with which serious theorists must wrestle.[6]

But we must see capitalism as a complex and dynamically evolving reality, a vast and contradictory process, assuming different forms in different moments of history and in different places on our planet. All this is inseparable from the relentless process of capital accumulation. The diversity of “capitalisms” cannot be defined by a single description. This is particularly true in regard to the shaping and reshaping of the working class, which is always in process, being composed and de-composed and re-composed by the dynamics of the capital accumulation process – over and over again being “pulled apart and pushed together,” as Kim Moody once put it. “The shape of the working class in all corners of the world has changed as capitalism itself has altered its geographic, organizational, and technological contours,” he noted near the close of the last century. “As old structures of the working class are altered, however, new ones arise.”[7]

This brings us to additional Marxist debates about yet another central Marxist category – the proletariat, or working class. (Or are these two terms really synonyms?)

The working class

Some Marxist theorists have introduced what appear to me to be unnecessary complications in the way the central category working class is to be understood. One of the best expositors of Marxism, Hal Draper, makes a distinction between the proletariat (which he defines as those whose labour creates surplus-value for capitalists, i.e., those in the private sector of the economy) and a broader working class (those more simply selling their ability to work). Nicos Poulantzas, in a similar manner but with different labels, makes a distinction between workers (those who produce surplus-value for capitalists) and a more inclusive category of those who are wage-earners (some of whom do not produce surplus-value and whom he designates as a “new petty bourgeoisie”). Erik Olin Wright, highly critical of Poulantzas, developed the category of contradictory class locations, distinguishing between “pure” workers and those who have “mixed locations” – either workers who have a significant degree of autonomy over their labour and/or exploited workers who, nonetheless, have control over other workers. Wright sees these as a blend of proletarian and “petty bourgeois.”[8]

All of this is in contrast to the simple, more “open” definition offered by Frederick Engels in an 1888 footnote to the Communist Manifesto:By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.”[9]

It is not clear why Engels’ identification of the class of wage labourers (working class) with proletariat is inferior to Hal Draper’s insistence upon a distinction. Among the problems with Poulantzas’s restrictive analysis are: (1) the fact that it seems to restrict, in our own time, the working class of advanced capitalist countries to a declining fraction of the labour force (which throws into question a key element of Marxism’s strategic orientation), and (2) the fact that historically it would read out of the ranks of the working class most of the leadership and the social base, for example, of the Paris Commune of 1871 (which throws into question the judgment of Marx and Engels, who hailed the Commune as an example of political rule by the revolutionary working class). Even Wright’s conceptualization of “mixed-class locations” seems to collide with certain historical realities. For example, through Francis Couvares’s incisive study of Pittsburgh’s working class from 1877 to 1919, we can see that skilled workers who had both a significant degree of autonomy over their labour and at the same time had a significant degree of control over less-skilled labourers working under them, provided the leadership for the explosive insurgency of 1877 and the momentous Homestead Steel Strike of 1892.[10]

This is hardly meant to restrict class analysis to the simplicity of Engels’s 1888 definition – but keeping the definition simple might enable latter-day Marxist analysts and activists to develop more complex theorizations without violating theoretical coherence, historical accuracy, or the potential for strategic clout. It is here that identity, intersectionality, and class-consciousness come in.

Identity and intersectionality

The driving force in Marx’s theoretical work involved a belief in the need for a revolution that could replace capitalism with a new and liberating socialist society. Revolutions involve the active participation of masses of people, the overturn of established ruling groups and the creation of a new political and social order. How people actually see or identify themselves as they engage in social struggles, and the identities they seek to build on, or to foster, in order to bring about social change, is of central importance for the unfolding of any revolutionary process. The examination of such matters of identity is important for those wishing to understand such processes. Among the most potent identities in modern revolutionary movements has been that of class, and we have seen that a belief in the economic role and experience, and the potential power, of the working class was central to Marx’s understanding of the revolutionary process.

To a very large extent in the late twentieth century, however, organized labour did not appear to play the militantly class-struggle role Marxists had expected of it – a point (we have noted) that profoundly influenced the thinking of radical intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills. Labour’s radical left wing dramatically deteriorated in many capitalist countries in the decades following 1950, with a significant radicalizing reversal in the late 1960s giving way to even more dramatic decline in the century’s final decades. This took place even as capitalist reality had increasingly negative impact on various social groups. Under the impact of such realities, over time a specialized concept of identity was developed – particularly by theorists influenced by the philosophical current known as post-structuralism – which focused on the way in which specific groups in society have been culturally identified and/or self-identified, a means for defining relationships with those around them. (Mills had died by this time, but he would have been quick to note similarities between this concept and sociologist Max Weber’s notion of status).[11]

One can begin an understanding of this conception by reflecting on the fact that each of us is conscious of having many different identities that are important to defining who we are. Among the variety of such identities – some of which seem more vibrant to us than others – are (in no particular order): our place within a particular family; our gender; our race and/or ethnicity; our nationality; our age; our religious orientation; our attitude toward specific political ideas; our sexual orientation and preferences; the foods we like; our musical preferences, the clothes we choose to wear, and other cultural inclinations; our favorite hobbies and pastimes; organizations that we happen to belong to; whether we live in a city, a small town, or a rural area; our income level; our particular economic occupation and skill level within that occupation; and the socio-economic class we happen to belong to.

It can be argued that for most people there is not a natural inclination to “privilege” the final, italicized identity in the previous paragraph. The question can be raised as to why – if the critical points made by C. Wright Mills and others are valid – one’s class identity, particularly working-class identity, should be privileged. Some have argued that if one is concerned with revolutionary protest and change, a very different identity focus than class is far more relevant.

One Marxist response could be that the exploitation of a working-class majority by a capitalist minority – and the centrality of the working-class majority to the functioning of society as a whole -- creates a social reality and revolutionary potential not duplicated by any of the other identities. This hardly dismisses the central importance of certain other identities – particularly race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality. Liberation struggles of oppressed groups (such as blacks and women) are absolutely essential for social progress and for human liberation, and independent social movements (controlled by blacks and women respectively) are indeed needed to advance such struggles.[12]

The fact is, however, that the majority of the people in such mass movements (regardless of how they consciously identify themselves) happen to be part of the working class, that such struggles are objectively in the interests of the working class as a whole, and that such movements and struggles can play a “vanguard” role in helping to radicalize the working class and lead it forward in the struggle against the capitalist status quo.

Yet the working class reality must be understood not simply as an abstract category but as a process, associated with the ongoing dynamics of capitalism, through which the class is formed and re-formed from a massive body of people who are shaped by a variety of identities, subject to a variety of cultural and historical influences, involving a complex network of relationships and varying elements of consciousness related to these dynamic realities. We are shaped by the simultaneous influences of race, class, gender, sexuality, and more – many of which involve, in our historical context, various distinct and intense forms of oppression. Some activist-theorists have called this complex reality “simultaneity” or “intersectionality.”[13]

In terms of practical revolutionary strategy, the central category of working class must be understood in all of its vibrant intersectional diversity, with each struggle by its various component parts being understood as a vital and necessary element of the overall class struggle.

Class consciousness, ideology and labour aristocracy

A Marxist theorist can insist that a variety of social struggles – the struggle against racism, for women’s liberation, for gay rights, against war, in defense of the natural environment, in defense of public spaces and services (such as parks, schools, transit systems, health care, libraries), etc. – are really part of the overall class struggle of the proletariat. And such an assertion may arguably be absolutely true. But this does not mean that the working class as a whole, or those who make up the base of the various social struggles (most of whom happen to be part of the working class) will see things that way. This brings us to the vitally important notion, for Marxists, of class consciousness.

To discuss this adequately, we must come to terms with another terminological kink within the Marxist tradition, having to do with the word ideology. Many Marxists, especially basing themselves on in-depth engagement with early philosophical texts by Marx, give a distinctive definition to the term. For them, it basically adds up to “false consciousness,” that is, a set of ideas or belief system covering over the oppressive realities of the status quo, leading the oppressed and exploited and everyone else, in one way or another, to accept and help perpetuate an oppressive and exploitative system.

This is contrasted to a genuinely scientific and true – non-ideological – understanding of reality, represented by Marx’s thought. There are problems with this approach, one being what would seem a dogmatic assumption that Marxism alone represents the One True System of Understanding Reality (a fatally closed system of thought), thereby gliding over the possibility that Marx himself, and those closest to him (however that is determined), were no less human than the rest of us and therefore may have gotten some important things wrong, may have been deceived, or may be deceiving themselves, into believing false notions. There are other Marxists – most notably Lenin – who have used the term in a more neutral manner. This sees an ideology as simply a set of ideas, a belief system, which one utilizes to make sense of reality. That is how I prefer to use the term. An ideology may be “false” (I consider this to be the case with a diverse set of belief systems that include fundamentalist religions, vulgar Marxism, pro-capitalist liberalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, fascism, etc.), but not necessarily. It may yield some valid insights, it may provide a more or less adequate understanding of reality, it may be interpreted and utilized in foolish or invaluable ways, it may be blended fruitfully or chaotically with other ideologies, etc.[14]

With this neutral usage, Marxism itself represents an ideological perspective. If it is interpreted, developed, and utilized intelligently, and communicated clearly, it can play an invaluable role in contributing to the consciousness of the working class.

Which brings us to the meaning of the term class consciousness. For Marxists, the term does not mean simply whatever happens to be in the mind of a worker. It suggests, instead, (a) understanding that there is a capitalist system that is oppressive and exploitative toward the working class to which one belongs, (b) that it is possible and necessary for workers to join together to advance the interests of themselves and the working class as a whole, (c) that this involves a power struggle with the capitalist class which can be won partially in the short term, and definitively in the longer term, (d) leading to an economic, social and political order that is truly democratic and in which the free development of each person will be the condition for the free development of all. This may seem a tall order, yet such class consciousness has existed on a mass scale many times over the past century and a half.[15]

But this does not happen automatically. History shows that it is possible for broad sectors of the working class -- due to their location in capitalist society and the “objective” conditions (living conditions, working conditions, experiences and relationships related to these) bearing down on them -- to develop an accurate understanding of their situation, adding up to the kind of revolutionary class consciousness described above. But it is not the case that workers always develop such consciousness. There is often a significant gap between the “ripeness” of objective conditions (the blatant oppressiveness and destructiveness of capitalism, intensified suffering among the masses of people who are part of the working class) on the one hand, and on the other hand the level of class consciousness among a majority of workers. They may fail to grasp clearly the sources of their misery and what to do to end it. Many workers have an insufficient level of knowledge and revolutionary determination even under the most oppressive conditions. To the extent that class consciousness develops among workers, it does so unevenly. Some come to such insights and beliefs, which they share with others, some of whom are persuaded, and some of whom require more experience before such consciousness makes sense to them. There are some who never develop such consciousness.

This means that bad conditions are not inevitably reflected in an increasingly revolutionary consciousness of workers, that the problems of capitalism do not inevitably turn workers into socialists or revolutionaries. Historically, among the first layers of the working class to turn to socialism and labour action, assuming a vanguard position within the class as a whole, have not been the most oppressed unskilled workers, but rather the less downtrodden skilled workers. At the same time, this relatively “privileged” layer of the working class can become, and historically often has become, an “aristocracy of labour” that follows an utterly “opportunistic” policy, that sacrifices the basic interests of the mass of workers in favor of the temporary interests of a small number of workers.

Before going further, we need to come to terms with another terminological squabble among Marxist theorists – aristocracy of labour.

In a recent essay, Charles Post has challenged the theory of the labour aristocracy. Noting that variants have been offered by Marx and Engels, by Lenin and Gregory Zinoviev, and more recently by Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer, he comments that all include two key points: (1) “working-class conservatism is the result of material differences – relative privileges – enjoyed by some workers,” and (2) “the source of this relative privilege (‘the bribe’) is a sharing of higher-than-average profits between capitalists and a privileged labor-aristocracy.” He argues that the second point appears true in some periods (for example, “during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s certain branches of industry enjoyed stable, higher-than-average profits and wages,” corresponding to conservatized unions in those industries), but that profits then went down in those industries. (He seems to glide over the fact that, subsequently, the unions in question were largely pushed back and in some cases eliminated, partly due to dynamics deindustrialization/globalization). He argues that the first point – inevitable conservatism of more “privileged” workers – is disproved by the fact that, as we have also emphasized, the better-off skilled workers actually played a vanguard role in trade union and socialist struggles in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[16]

Among, for example, the skilled metal workers in tsarist Russia, the influence of Lenin’s Bolsheviks was quite high. Of course, there were various tendencies, different levels of consciousness, within this stratum. One worker later recalled the early days of the Russian labour movement this way: “At that time, the difference between metal and textile workers was like the difference between the city and the countryside... Metal workers considered themselves aristocrats among other workers. Their occupations demanded more training and skill, and therefore they looked down on other workers, such as weavers and the like, as an inferior category, as country bumpkins: today he will be at the mill, but tomorrow he will be poking at the earth with his wooden plow.” Naturally, the highest percentage of women workers were among these lowly textile workers, allowing for male chauvinism to blend with the disdain for “bumpkins.” Yet later, a militant metal worker would express a different way of thinking: “Only a conscious working person can truly respect a human individual, women, cherish a tender child’s soul. We will not learn from anyone but ourselves. We, the conscious working people, have no right to be like the bourgeois.” Noting the impulse of many conscious workers to reach out to their less fortunate class brothers and sisters, one observer wrote that “the spiritual process is an active one. Once the voice of the individual has begun to speak in the worker, he can neither sit under a bush ... nor limit himself to words... The strength of this process is in its dynamism: the upward strata of the proletariat lift up the backward strata to its level.” This process was by no means automatic, but rather took years before coming to fruition. Without it, however, there would have been no Russian Revolution. It was this vanguard layer of the working class, as Lenin put it, that would be “capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organizing the new system, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people in organizing their social life without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie.”[17]

In contrast to this were the “opportunist” trends also existing in the labour movement, which Lenin denounced for training “the members of the workers’ party to be the representatives of the better-paid workers, who lose touch with the masses, ‘get along’ fairly well under capitalism, and sell their birthright for a mess of pottage, renounce their role as revolutionary leaders of the people against the bourgeoisie.” An example drawn from U.S. labour history would be skilled workers within the American Federation of Labour adopting a narrow “pure and simple” trade unionism that cares for the needs of a small number of organized workers (themselves) while excluding women, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, unskilled and unemployed workers, and in general rejects broader social concerns. There is nothing that inevitably pushes this layer in the direction either of opportunist labour aristocracy or principled revolutionary vanguard. What is decisive is the ability revolutionaries within this layer, as within the entire working class, to organize for the purpose of winning their workmates, and their sisters and brothers in the working class as a whole, over to a revolutionary understanding of what’s what and what’s needed.[18]

Practical action rooted in theory

The best that is in the tradition of Marxism is grounded in the serious study and understanding of history, economics, and society, and also in the practical experience – instructive mistakes and gains, defeats and victories – of working class struggles. Taken as a whole, this constitutes a body of Marxist theory, a way of understanding things. Theory becomes an invaluable guide to practical action. Yet it must remain open to evolving realities, new insights, new tasks. Revolutionary-minded activists, drawing on this rich and open and critical-minded body of thought, can and must reach out to various sectors of today’s working class – which in countries such as the United States includes the great majority of people: blue-collar and white-collar workers of various kinds, production workers and service employees in the public and private sectors, proletarianized “professionals” as well as impoverished agricultural labourers, not to mention family members and others dependent on the paychecks of those selling their labour-power, and the substantial ranks of both unemployed and retired workers.

We are many, but our success will be dependent upon a sufficient degree of class consciousness among a substantial number of us. This class consciousness, in our own time, must incorporate insights that reflect the realities associated with notions of identity and intersectionality. It must be said that this approach is not entirely new. “The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects,” Lenin insisted.[19] The struggles we are engaged with encompass the human rights, the elemental democratic rights, of all sectors of our class, all “identities” within our class. Without the thoroughgoing struggle for such democratic rights, there can be no socialism. Again, Lenin was on the cutting-edge of comprehending such realities:

The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. It is absurd to contrapose the socialist revolution and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism to a single problem of democracy, in this case, the national question. We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy.[20]

This strategic orientation – an uncompromising struggle for thoroughgoing democracy flowing into an unstoppable upsurge toward socialist revolution – becomes effective only when it animates substantial sectors of our class, and this will not happen automatically. Those of us who share this vision must organize ourselves, and join with other like-minded forces to organize struggles through which such revolutionary class consciousness can assume mass proportions. As enough people in the diverse and multifaceted working-class majority become “conscious” workers, organized as a political force capable of bringing about a revolutionary power-shift, possibilities will open up for the flowering of a society of the free and the equal.


[1] C. Wright Mills, The Marxists (New York: New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1962), 34, 35.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] Ibid., 99.

[4] Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620-1877 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 40; David Gordon, Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich Segmented Work, Divided Workers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 18. Terminological differences aside, I consider each of these as extremely valuable contributions to the understanding of U.S. capitalism.

[5] For Marx and Engels on U.S. capitalism, including in relation to the Civil War, see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx and Engels on the United States, ed. by Nelly Rumyantseva (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979), August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America: The “Absolute Democracy” or “Defiled Republic” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), and Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (London: Verso, 2011). On social composition of the International Workingmen’s Association and Paris Commune see E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (New York: New American Library, 1979), 184, and Stewart Edwards, ed., The Communards of Paris, 1871 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 28-29. On the nineteenth-century European working class, see Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds., Working Class Formation: Nineteenth Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). On what Marx and Engels believed they were doing, see David Riazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, An Introduction to Their Lives and Work (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), and August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: State University Press of New York, 2000).

[6] For a history of the U.S. working class written from this standpoint, see Paul Le Blanc, A Short History of the U.S. Working Class, From Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999). For an application of Trotsky’s theory to European history, see Paul Le Blanc, “Uneven and Combined Development and the Sweep of History: Focus on Europe,” International Viewpoint, 21 September 2006 (

[7] Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London: Verso, 1997), 178; also see Paul Mason, Live Working, Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010).

[8] Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume II: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 34-38; Nicos Polantzas, “On Social Classes,” in James Martin, ed., The Polantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State (London: Verso, 2008), 186-219; Erik Olin Wright, Class, Crisis and the State (London: Verso, 1979), 30-110. Petty bourgeoisie has traditionally meant small capitalists -- owners of small businesses, independent artisans and professionals selling products and services, and independent small farmers. For some it has been common to include government employees, many or most “white collar” employees, etc. Sometimes it has also been conflated with the incredibly fuzzy term “middle class.”

[9] Phil Gasper, ed., The Communist Manifesto: A Roadmap to History’s Most Important Political Document (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 39.

[10] Francis G. Couvares, The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City 1877-1919 (Albany: State University of New York, 1984). On the Paris Commune, see n. 5 above.

[11] This discussion draws substantially from my essay “Class and Identity,” in Immanuel Ness, et al, eds., Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, Volume II (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing/John Wiley and Sons, 2009), 776-783. Weber’s theorizations that correspond to aspects of “identity” conceptualizations can be found in H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 180-195.

[12] This point is made in Roger Lancaster’s brilliant anthropological study, Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 282.

[13] David Roediger, “The Crisis in Labor History: Race, Gender and the Replotting of the Working Class Past in the United States,” in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working-Class History (London: Verso, 1994), 76; also see Sharon Smith, “Black Feminism and Intersectionality,” International Socialist Review, Issue 91, Winter 2013-14, 6-24. This way of understanding the working class also owes much to Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 3-78, and Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class, ed. by Ira Berlin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 380-394.

[14] See Jorge Larrain, “Ideology” in Tom Bottomore et al, eds., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Second Edition (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 242-252.

[15] This draws from Paul Le Blanc, “Spider and Fly: The Leninist Philosophy of Georg Lukács,” Historical Materialism 20-2 (2013), 47-75. More on class consciousness can be found in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, new edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 24-26, 30-33, 42-43, 45-46, 58-64, 65-67.

[16] Charles Post, “Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of ‘Labour-Aristocracy,’” Historical Materialism 18.4 (2010), 6, 25. See also the exposition in one of Post’s targets, Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer, The Labour Aristocracy: The Material Basis for Opportunism in the Labour Movement (Chippendale, NSW, Australia: Resistance Books, 2004). A criticism similar to that expressed here can be found in Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), 265.

[17] This is drawn from Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 34-35, 292.

[18] Ibid., 292. On the “pure and simple” ideology and practice that became dominant in the American Federation of Labor, see: Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume II: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism (New York: International Publishers, 1955), History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume III: The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor, 1900-1909 (New York: International Publishers, 1964), and History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume V: The AFL in the Progressive Era 1910-1915 (New York: International Publishers, 1980). Also see Paul Le Blanc, Work and Struggle: Voices from U.S. Labor Radicalism (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[19] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (1902) in V.I. Lenin, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings, edited by Paul Le Blanc (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 143.

[20] Lenin, “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” (1915) in ibid., 233-234. For discussion of “cutting-edge” aspects of Lenin’s approach, also see Shandro (cited in note 15 above), and Kevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism, A Critical Study (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).


Another excellent contribution to revolutionary socialism by Paul LeBlanc. Thank you LINKS