Revolutionary theory, academia and Marxist political parties

By Raju J Das

October 20, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — If revolution is necessary, what is necessary for revolution? Many things are necessary. There has to be a numerically large mass of workers who are suffering, who are class conscious and who are engaged in trade union and political struggle. Revolution also needs “a correct revolutionary theory” (Lenin, 1968). And theory — or more broadly, revolutionary intellectual work — has to be consciously produced. Then the question is: what is the role of the academic world in this production, in relation to the world of political revolutionaries (e.g. party-based intellectuals), and what is the connection between intellectual work and political program. This short article provides some basic reflections on this question in a schematic form.

Revolutionary work requires theory, propaganda, agitation and organization

According to Lenin, revolutionary work has four parts: theoretical work, propaganda, agitation and organization. One can slightly modify this statement by saying the following. Revolutionary work requires intellectual work. Intellectual work encompasses theoretical work, which is a set of statements that critique and explain the reality, and that is supported (or at least, supportable) by empirical evidence. The twin of intellectual work is political program. The latter comprises statements about what is to be done politically to change the reality that intellectual work seeks to interpret. Revolutionary work not only requires theory and its twin, program, but also at least three other things: propaganda, agitation, and organization.

We read the following lines about the distinction between propaganda and agitation from Lenin’s What is to be done?[1]

By propaganda we would understand the revolutionary explanation of the present social system, entire or in its partial manifestations, whether that be done in a form intelligible to individuals or to broad masses.

[The] propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc.

The agitator… speaking on the same subject [e.g. unemployment], will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience, say, the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment, etc., and, utilising this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”, e.g., the senselessness of the contradiction between the increase of wealth and the increase of poverty; he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses against this crying injustice.

By agitation,… we would understand the call upon the masses to undertake definite, concrete actions and the promotion of the direct revolutionary intervention of the proletariat in social life.

A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons.[2] [But] an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but he presents them to a mass of people.

Consequently, the propagandist operates chiefly by means of the printed word; the agitator by means of the spoken word.[3]

The reality is never given to us directly. It is never given to us on a platter. To understand the ways in which society (and its metabolism with nature) works, we need to work. Merely by looking at a person ploughing a piece of land owned by another person, we would not know if the worker is a slave or a nominally free wage-labourer. The theoretical concepts of slave, free labour, etc. are necessary to properly understand — and to adequately reflect on — an empirical event. Everything in the world — from cooking to eating to producing food, or software, etc. — requires ideas, and these ideas need to be produced on the basis of interaction with the world.

Clearly, ideas used in propaganda and agitation come from, and are shaped by, theoretical work, which reflects the objective reality. [4]

The link between theory and program

Some people (especially, those who are affiliated to Marxist parties) think that the political program (i.e. the view of what is to be done) determines one’s theory, or one’s intellectual analysis (one’s view of what exists and why). I have a slightlydifferent idea: reality, theory, and program form a whole, within which the hierarchy of causality runs like this: reality, theory, and program. 

Theory is a statement about the world’s deeper structures such as capitalist class relations forming the social totality, that cause observable events (e.g. low wages, ecological damage, oppression of minorities in the capitalist society, etc.). It is theory that leads one to program, the view of what is to be done about the problems that intellectual work identifies. And the testing of the program in political practice leads one to confirm or rethink one’s theory. Here one must bear in mind that theoretical disagreements are ultimately political. Leon Trotsky says: “The most remote, and … the most ‘abstract’ disagreements, if they are thought out to the end, will sooner or later be invariably expressed in practice”[5].

If theory says that capitalism is the major cause of humanity’s problems, then this points to the socialist program, and the theory and program then shape propaganda and agitation. But to assess a given theoretical/intellectual idea, one need not always go back to the theoretical idea that underlies the socialist program. So, when one encounters an intellectual claim, one might ask whether its political implication contradicts the socialist program. If it does, then it prompts one to begin to probe/question the theoretical idea. However, it would be difficult to say this: just because one believes in the socialist program, then everything one says must be correct intellectually (i.e. theoretically and/or empirically). 

It is difficult to use politics — i.e. one’s political beliefs — as the main criterion of truth. Ideas do have a degree of relative autonomy relative to political practice. Using politics as the main epistemological criterion of truth would be a dangerous play of subjectivism and idealism. 

Let us say that X believes in a fascistic program, which includes the idea that a given minority group has no right to exist or that it cannot increase its population through natural increase and/or through in-migration. In this specific context, whatever X says about population control or the relation between population growth and poverty that is in support of that fascistic program, must be taken to be true if one believes that politics is the criterion of truth status of a statement.

The truth status of a statement mainly depends on whether the statement is consistent with reason (philosophical principles and scientific logic) and whether it is corroborated or can be corroborated by evidence. This is the case even if in thinking about the intellectual adequacy of an idea, one cannot entirely abstract from its political adequacy

At one level, theory and program have a reciprocal relationship within a system in which primacy must be assigned to theory. At another level, theory, program and objective reality form a system in which the objective reality has the primacy over theory, and theory over program, while program in turn shapes theory, and theory, by contributing to struggle, changes the reality. At a still more concrete level, objective reality, theory, and its twin, program, and then propaganda, agitation and organizational work form a system in which they all shape one another and contribute to revolutionary struggle, and the revolutionary struggle shapes all these elements, and within this system, ultimately, reality has primacy over theory and theory has primacy over program.

Determining what a program is (i.e. producing statements about what is to be done), conducting propaganda and agitation, all these require theoretical work. No revolution is possible without theory, even if it is true that theory does not guarantee revolution. Marx says: “before the proletariat wins its victory on the barricades and battle lines it announces the coming of its rule by intellectual victories, by emergence of working class intellectuals.….” [6]

It is Marxist theory, generally developed by intellectuals connected to the working class and by workers in their role  as intellectuals, including those who are party-affiliated, that educates the workers. Lenin says: “By educating the workers' party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, 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.”[7]

The revolutionary theory that workers need will not be easy to produce. It will be achieved “through the agony… experienced [over a protracted period of] … unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification” (Lenin, 1968: 11) . And, the development of such theory benefits from comparison with international working class revolutionary experience, including in the most developed parts of the world, and from a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement’ (ibid.). Just as socialism cannot be produced in one country, revolutionary theory needed for socialism cannot be produced inside the boundaries of one country. It is an international process.

The revolution theory must be rooted in Marxism

The theory that revolution against class and capitalism needs must be based in Marxism. Lenin (1913) says: “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men [and women] with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.”[9]

As one “among doctrines connected with the struggle of the working class”, Marxism has always had to struggle for its existence in a competitive relation with non-Marxist ideas. [10] Why? Given the link between theories and ideas, Marxism is against the interests of the propertied classes. Lenin says: “the Marxian doctrine, which directly serves to enlighten and organise the advanced class in modern society, indicates the tasks facing this class and demonstrates the inevitable replacement (by virtue of economic development) of the present system by a new order—no wonder that this doctrine has had to fight for every step forward in the course of its life.”[11]

As a set of ideas, Marxism does reflect the interests of the masses and thus lead to a program of action from the standpoint of the masses. Non-Marxist theory, generally, reflects the fundamental interests of the propertied class and leads to a bourgeois program of action (reproduction of the current society). For non-Marxists, their political opposition to a socialist world (i.e. their bourgeois program) determines their intellectual views about what exists and why, and such intellectual views then oppose Marxist intellectual views. But Marxists need not rely on that epistemological strategy. Their scientific analysis of class relations and of capitalism, shaped by their dialectical and materialist philosophy, not only negates much of what non-Marxists say but also leads Marxists to their program of action. That program, then, in turn, serves as a litmus test of the adequacy of their analysis, in the mind of Marxists.[12] In the last 200 years or so, the intellectual history of the world is, more or less, the history of opposition between non-Marxist views and Marxism.

Lenin provides a longue durée history of Marxism from the 1840s to the early part of the 20thth century, arguing that “among doctrines connected with the struggle of the working class, and current mainly among the proletariat, Marxism by no means consolidated its position all at once”. While thanks to revolutions in 1917 (and 1949), Marxism, even if in its distorted Stalinist form, was very much alive, including in academia, until the 1970-1980s when it experienced some sort of crisis in part thanks to the rise of various forms of idealism and identity politics and decline in workers’ militancy and capitulation of communist parties to capitalist rule. Apparently, according to The Guardian, in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, Marxism is on the rise again.[13]

The Marxism that revolution needs must be the Marxism of the MELLT

In any case, Marxism – Marxist theory – is necessary for revolution. And in the 21st century, it should be said that the theory that is needed for revolution must be based in revolutionary Marxism. I will call this ‘the Marxism of the MELLT’ (MELLT= Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky).[14] The Marxism of the MELLT is based in materialist dialectics. And in terms of its scientific and political aspects, it is critical of conservatism, liberalism, identity politics, social democracy, Third World nationalism, and anarchism (which is associated with such currents as post-structuralism). While the Marxism of the MELLT builds on the achievements of humanity’s attempt to uncover the laws of society and its interaction with nature, and in particular, on mainstream Marxism, it is also very critical of the latter form of Marxism. Much of the mainstream Marxism dilutes the causal significance of class and capitalism (capital-labour relation).[15] The MELLT Marxism is also critical of much of the mainstream Marxism that dilutes the significance of Marx’s (1850) statement that: “it is our interest and our task [as socialists] to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far — not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world — that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”[16]

Much mainstream Marxism believes in, among other things, achieving a more democratic and more developed capitalism (one sans feudalism and imperialism) in a poor country before thinking about socialist revolution. That Marxism is too eager to enter into political compromises with the petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces in advanced countries. 

Building on the achievements of humanity’s attempt to uncover the laws of society and its interaction with nature, and in particular, on mainstream Marxism, the revolutionary Marxism (i.e. the Marxism of the mellt), in contrast, says that: 

  1. Class/capitalism is the fundamental cause of society’s major problems.
  2. Capitalism is the dominant form of class society now in every country and in the world. It includes a capitalism where workers work for long hours and low wages 
  3. Capitalism is characterized by a dialectics of exchange, property and value relations, and workers’ alienation from state power, and so comprehensively strangles the masses that it leaves them with no opportunity for a humane life within capitalism.
  4. Socialism (and not a more tolerable capitalism) is the only solution to the problems created by the capitalist class society.
  5. Socialism can be established only by overthrowing capitalism and its state and all other forms of class relations and of social oppression and imperialism.
  6. This overthrow is possible only on the basis of a theoretically conscious, organized, self-emancipatory struggle of the workers and other oppressed groups against attacks on democratic rights and livelihood as a part of the fight for socialism.
  7. This struggle is guided by a democratically-organized non-sectarian party/parties immersed in the lives of the masses and leading/guiding them in their daily struggles, including on the basis of partial and transitional demands.
  8. The aim of such struggle must be to replace the capitalist state and establish their own democratically-functioning workers’ state and use their political power in the form of this state to a) stop the overthrown classes from returning to power, b) educate the non-proletarian masses about the virtues of socialism and c) gradually begin to construct socialism, nationally and internationally. 

How is intellectual work necessary for revolution to be produced?

If Marxist theory – or more broadly, Marxist intellectual work – is needed for revolution, how is that to be achieved? The best intellectual work is always achieved on the basis of curiosity to unpack causal mechanisms in the world which are not easily given to perception and on the basis of a passionate desire to change the world. The best intellectual work happens in conjunction with a certain degree of engagement with the masses, however overt or covert. 

Intellectual work requires reviewing and critiquing a wide variety of existing ideas. [17] This allows one to create the ground for presenting one’s own intellectual views.

From this angle, there is some common ground between university-based intellectual work and the intellectual work that happens inside a political party or a movement.

There could be a tendency on the part of a given political party to give less attention to what others, including in the academia, are saying and to, as quickly as possible, present what it itself thinks on a topic.[18] On the other hand, the academic people tend to spend a lot of time talking about what x says, what y says, what z says, etc.,[19] in part because an academic has to show off one’s command over the existing literature, including the latest fads peddled by this or that writer and this or that academic star. 

To the extent that it is possible for a revolutionary intellectual to operate in the academia, he/she can and must seek to strike a balance between these two types of inadequate intellectual practice. That is, they must try to avoid not only the academic excesses but also some political parties’ narrow-mindedness. 

I would also absolutely defend the idea that in reviewing the existing work, an academic can use both academic literature as well as the party/political literature that belongs to the sphere of theoretical work and/or propaganda. A lot of the latter type of work will put a lot of academic work to shame.

The principle that one should allow one’s own ideas to be situated in relation to different/opposed ideas has a practical implication. I personally think that in the sphere of theoretical work (which is one of the different components of political work), a political party, just like a university-based intellectual, must draw the attention of the readers to the views that a given party does not agree with: one must say, “this is what we think but you should also find out what others think on this topic, and then make up your mind about the adequacy of the different ideas”.[20]

In intellectual work, one should always say what others are saying about a topic, what is right and what is wrong with what is being said, and therefore, what needs to be said. One should critique the world and one should critique the ideas about the world, in a language that is as civil as possible.[21] And in theoretically-informed empirical work, one’s ideas must be corroborated by empirical evidence that can be archival and otherwise.



Revolutionary ideas are necessary for revolution. These ideas unpack the contradiction-ridden structural mechanisms that produce their surface expressions, and point to how contradictions in the reality can be resolved and a better world achieved. But one cannot rely on the academic world for creating ideas that will contribute to revolution, even if it is true that some academics — de-classed intellectuals allied with the masses — can contribute to the production of revolutionary ideas. The academia as a class-stratum is petty-bourgeois with a definite role to a) impart technical and social skills to a large number of people so they can produce wealth for the property-owners, and b) make the toilers consent to the system and accept the existing society as the natural order or in slightly modified forms. This entire class-stratum cannot commit suicide: it cannot give up its structural role. It cannot surrender itself to the cause of socialism.[22] All this simply means that intellectual work, which is necessary for revolution, cannot rely on academic ideas to any significant extent. Nor can one immediately assume that all academic ideas are simply petty-bourgeois and opportunistic,[23] just as one cannot assume that all political tendencies that claim to be revolutionary are indeed revolutionary. Many groups which claim to be revolutionary are no more than opportunistic groups or little groups with strong sectarian tendencies whereby they, in pursuit of pure program and principles, abstain from all struggles.[24] The ideas produced by a political party, as the ideas of an academic, must be assessed on the basis of the same criteria: whether reason is applied, whether there is — or can be — an empirical basis for the claims. And, one must also ask whether these ideas ultimately support the interests of the bourgeoisie or the interests of proletarians and semi-proletarians. There are ultimately two kinds of ideas. Ideas ultimately reflect interests. [25] The ideas that are guided by the application of reason and sound philosophical principles (materialist dialectics) and that have a basis in evidence, are, ultimately, more likely to be in accordance with the interests of the toiling masses than not. The pursuit of scientific truth minus the class-based need to hide what is real produces ideas that reflect the interests of the masses. Their interest is in the truth and not in hiding the truth. It is the propertied classes that need not scientific ideas but ideology: a set of ideas that are partly false and partly true and that support the exploitative system.

There are bourgeois ideas that support the current social system. There are working class ideas that are needed for a revolution. And, there is hardly anything in between.

Das is a Professor at York University, Toronto. His most recent book, published in 2017, is Marxist Class Theory for a Skeptical World, Brill: Leiden. He is currently writing a book on Marx’s Capital 1, entitled Marx, Capital, and Contemporary Capitalism: A Global Perspective, to be published by Taylor and Francis, London. He serves on the editorial board and on the manuscript collective of Science & Society: A Journal of Marxist Thought and Analysis. Email:

[1] Vladimir Lenin. 1902. What is to be done; Lenin is partly building on Plekhanov.

[2] The propagandist ‘must present “many ideas”, so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons’. 

[3] Or more adequately, the propagandist operates chiefly by means of the printed word (online or offline) while the agitator by means of the spoken word (online or offline). 

[4] What about theory vs the work of propaganda and agitation? ‘The theoreticians write research works on [say] tariff policy, with the “call”, say, to struggle for commercial treaties and for Free Trade. The propagandist does the same thing in the periodical press, and the agitator in public speeches. …The call for this action comes indirectly from the theoreticians, the propagandists, and the agitators, and, directly, from the workers who take the petition lists to the factories and to private homes for the gathering of signatures’

[5] Leon Trotsky. 1931. Introduction to the German Edition of the Permanent Revolution.

[6] Quoted in: Hal Draper. 1978. Karl Marx’s theory of revolution, Monthly Review press: New York, p. 76.

[7] Vladimir Lenin. 1917. The state and revolution.

[8] Vladimir Lenin. 1968. Leftwing communism. Progress publishers: Moscow.

[9] Lenin, V. 1913. ‘The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism’;

[10] In the first half-century of its existence (from the 1840s on) Marxism was engaged in combating theories fundamentally hostile to it. In the early forties Marx and Engels settled accounts with …philosophical idealism. At the end of the forties the struggle began in the field of economic doctrine, against Proudhonism. The fifties saw the completion of this struggle… In the sixties the struggle shifted from the field of general theory to one closer to the direct labour movement: the ejection of Bakuninism from the International. In the early seventies the stage in Germany was occupied for a short while by [a form of Proudhonism], and in the late seventies by [positivism]. …But the influence of both on the proletariat was already absolutely insignificant. Marxism was already gaining an unquestionable victory over all other ideologies in the labour movement. 

By the nineties this victory was in the main completed. Even in the Latin countries, where the traditions of Proudhonism held their ground longest of all, the workers’ parties in effect built their programmes and their tactics on Marxist foundations. The revived international organisation of the labour movement—in the shape of periodical international congresses—from the outset, and almost without a struggle, adopted the Marxist standpoint in all essentials. But after Marxism had ousted all the more or less integral doctrines hostile to it, the tendencies expressed in those doctrines began to seek other channels. The forms and causes of the struggle changed, but the struggle continued. And the second half-century of the existence of Marxism began (in the nineties) with the struggle of a trend hostile to Marxism within Marxism itself.

Bernstein, a one-time orthodox Marxist, gave his name to this trend by coming forward with the most noise and with the most purposeful expression of amendments to Marx, revision of Marx, revisionism. …

[11] Vladimir Lenin. 1908. Marxism and revisionism. 

[12] And, in some cases, the program also can politically put the ideas to test.

[13] Stuart Jeffries. 2012. Why Marxism is on the rise again.

[14] Das, 2014. Mapping the Marxist critique of society: or, what really is Marxism? In Contemporary capitalism : theoretical and international perspectives. Nova, New York.

[15] Das. 2017. Marxist class theory.

[16] Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels. 1850. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,

[17] Raju Das. 2012. Thinking/Writing Theoretically about Society

Raju Das. 2012b. Why must social science be critical, and why must doing social science be difficult?

Also, see, Raju Das. 2014. Contribution to the Critique of Contemporary Capitalism. Nova: New York.

[18] Perhaps one reason is that a party wishes to recruit as many people as possible and as quickly as possible, so it helps to give the impression that its own views are the only views that are worth considering. But this is a problematic practice. It might produce short term results: recruits won today are likely to be lost tomorrow.

[19] Often, many of these existing ideas are useless: the ratio of the quantity of substance (however measured) to the number of words is minimal!

[20] I do this in my academic life: I always tell prospective graduate students to find out about other teachers and then make up their mind about who to work with. Not doing so, in my view, is academic dishonesty. It is perhaps a sign of insecurity. And in my intellectual work, I begin with honestly presenting what others say (for example, in my Marxist class theory book, I devote three chapters to discuss and critique existing ideas about class in Marxism, before presenting my own ideas). 

[21] Excessive use of uncivil language – and I see this often -- is more a reflection of one’s mental state of mind than anything else. And such a state of mind could be an enormous subjective hindrance to revolution.

[22] The situation is akin to the idea that some members of the bourgeois class can support the working class movement but the entire class cannot commit suicide, as Marx says.

[23] Within limits, there are, and there can be, some people within academia, with revolutionary intentions and who are in some contact with revolutionary movements which have an impact on their thinking.

[24] Raju Das. 2019. Politics of Marx as non-sectarian revolutionary class politics: An Interpretation in the Context of the 20th and 21st Centuries;

[25] ‘There is a well-known saying that if geometrical axioms affected human interests attempts would certainly be made to refute them. Theories of natural history which conflicted with the old prejudices of theology provoked, and still provoke, the most rabid opposition’.