Theory and class struggle: A dialectical approach

Karl Marx graphic

Much of the knowledge, and especially that which comes from academia and media, is extremely problematic. It is often too empirical, lacking the ability to provide general explanations of phenomena under study. Or it is based on feelings/sentiments and not on evidence and reason, and assumes that there is little difference between true and false claims (McIntyre, 2018). Many knowledge claims are either deliberate distortions in support of the interests of the ruling class and its state, or there is a mistaken tendency to see knowledge claims to be neutral in relation to the main classes of society. To the extent that knowledge is said to have any practical relevance, it is merely expected to contribute to small changes in the current society, often wrapped up in identity politics, and thus to help reproduce the existing social order. Given these and many other problems, there is a need for an alternative view of knowledge and, especially, theory.

Such a view must emphasize the scientific character of knowledge claims: knowledge must be based on reason and evidence and on a critical attitude towards both. And knowledge claims must show their potential contribution to radical social change. Theory and empirical forms of knowledge are different, even if complimentary, and that distinction has not only epistemological relevance but also practical relevance. In addition, there are three intellectual functions of knowledge claims: knowledge is propositional, explanatory and critical. Knowledge also has an extra-intellectual function. It is practical: there are definite ways in which knowledge claims can and do contribute to class struggle and to radical changes in society. And the direct experience of class struggle and/or indirect experience of class struggle (i.e. mental reflections on it) can in turn influence knowledge claims, including theory.

Types of knowledge claims: Empirical and theoretical

Society (like the natural world) is ontologically stratified. There are deeper levels/layers, and there are levels/layers on the surface where we can, more or less, easily observe things. Knowledge is empirical when it is about the surface appearances (i.e. things that are ‘easy’ to observe and are of more concrete character). Surface appearances tend to vary a lot across times and places. So, empirical knowledge is about what happens in specific times/places. Two pounds of wheat may exchange for, say, one pen here or two pens there, but underlying these various empirically-existing exchange rates is something common: socially necessary abstract labour time.

Reality is theory-laden: the (empirical) reality is never given to us directly. To understand the ways in which society (and its metabolism with nature) works in specific times and places, we need to perform intellectual – theoretical – labour.[2] Theoretical knowledge claims are about the structural (or, necessary or internal) relations and the resulting mechanisms that under certain conditions produce empirical outcomes (Plato’s ‘particulars’) that are specific to times and places and to ontological individuals.[3] A theoretical claim takes the form of the following: under such and such conditions, or other things being constant, x will cause/produce (or set limit on) y, where x and y are made up of many internally related relations/processes, and x and y are both aspects/parts of one system of relations and processes and reflect the character of the system as a whole. Or, by virtue of certain relations, there are processes that lead to x while there are processes that counter x but the former processes outweigh the latter over time.[4] Internal relations – as opposed to external relations – are the subject matter of theory. Internal relations are the realms of necessity where x, an object, is what it is because of its internal relations to y and z, etc.

Theory tells us how to connect and organize the different bits of information, to produce the bigger picture about reality. It tells us the common content underlying the empirical difference between things. It tells us how an apparently isolated thing or process (e.g. apples falling or library book stacks named after companies or emotional trauma in war zones) represents wider processes. Theory provides general explanation of empirical phenomena, where the latter are seen as the outcome of the social relations/mechanisms that are widely prevalent across space and time (although how general the explanation is depends on the scope of the theory). In this sense, theoretical practice is the intellectual labour of applying certain ideas to examine existing knowledge to create new ideas which in turn informs the practice of empirical knowledge production. Theory is an ideal image of the material world corresponding to practice.

Theoretical knowledge is informed by, and contributes to, empirical practice. Both theoretical and empirical claims are necessary to understand the world, for what is ultimately needed is the ‘Concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ or ‘concrete analysis of precise and definite historical situations’ (Lenin, 1920, para 3-4), where the concrete is the product of multiple determinations, each of which theory allows us to examine.[5] Theory allows us to split up the messy concrete world into its parts on the basis of methods of abstraction.[6] Theory informs what to look for and how when one examines the world empirically, concretely. Empirical knowledge, concrete analysis, becomes a step towards (new) theoretical knowledge which in turn informs empirical knowledge.[7]

Intellectual function of knowledge claims

Why do we need knowledge? Firstly, knowledge claims are required to describe what is happening and where. Secondly, knowledge claims, especially theoretical claims, explain what is happening and where, so we can see where the world might be going, and how to ensure that things that support humanity’s interests get stronger and the things that go against their interests are weakened. So, knowledge must be propositional (descriptive or empirical) and explanatory or theoretical.[8]

Thirdly, knowledge, especially in its theoretical form, allows us to be critical of the world and of the ideas about it. There are many reasons why knowledge must be critical.[9] What appears to be true is not indeed true, so many knowledge claims fail to see the gap between appearance and underlying reality. Therefore, they end up being about surface appearances. Forms – appearances – are fetishized. Neoliberalism (neoliberal form of capitalism), rather than capitalism itself, is treated as the main cause of concrete social problems/events. Relatively concrete aspects of the (social) world are changing because of objective contradictions (including those between productive forces and relations and between classes and between unequal nations within an imperialist system). It is possible that a statement about a more concrete aspect of society (the extent to which industrial production dominates the economy or a given technology is used) made at a given time is no longer adequate and must be rejected. For example, the state has intervened much more actively in the economy than Marx observed and since he wrote his Capital, and those who fail to acknowledge this must be critiqued.[10]

For Marx, reality does not consist of only objective structures such as mountains and stock exchanges.[11] Human subjects with consciousness and ability to act are involved too. ‘It is because Marxism recognises the importance of the subject (i.e. the human being), that we intertwine theory with practice’.[12] On a daily basis, what we see in front of us is a permanent dialectics of objective structures and ‘human’ intervention (albeit in their class and class-fractional forms), and it is this dialectic that results in the fact that all that appears to be solid now melts into thin hour later. This is the case even if the process of change does not always favour the masses, and even if indeed the process of change appears to be imperceptible to us (Who knew the Arab Spring would happen when it did and who can say that it happened over night?). Indeed, at a relatively concrete level of society, ‘Any established theory is always usurped by events in the real world: practice is infinitely rich’.[13]

Indeed, when new reason and new evidence arrive that are significantly superior to the existing reason and evidence on the basis of which an existing theory has been formulated, the latter may be revised or a new theory may need to be developed to complement the existing theory. ‘Theory is not a note which you can present at any moment to reality for payment. If a theory proves mistaken, we must revise it or fill out its gaps’ (Trotsky, 1991: 93).

However, certain fundamental ideas about the social world cannot be changed/challenged, any more than the law of gravity in the natural world can be contested. The idea that capitalism is driven by competition and by the capitalist pursuit of surplus value appropriated from the working class and that capitalism is the most important obstacle to the elimination of human suffering and that socialism is a superior society to capitalism and must be fought for, these ideas cannot be revised. When some people challenge these fundamental claims, they will need to be critiqued just as there is a need to critique those who fail to see any change in the world at all in the last 200 years or so.

As already indicated, critique is necessary to point out that there is something wrong with the world (for example, there is much injustice – more on this point in the next section). Critique is also necessary because many ideas about the world are inadequate in that they are deliberate distortions designed, as a part of ideological class struggle from above, to help reproduce the existing unjust world.

Critique is also necessary because many ideas, including from socialists, about changing the world are inadequate. As a process of seeking to understand and to change the world, ‘Our work must be one of criticism, of explaining the mistakes of [reformists]…, and of curing the proletariat of the “general” petty-bourgeois intoxication. This seems to be “nothing more” than propaganda work, but in reality it is most practical revolutionary work’ (Lenin, 1917a). This is especially so in a situation in which masses possess unreasoning trust in the system. Lenin says in his ‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution’: ‘Only by overcoming this unreasoning trust …can we …really stimulate the consciousness both of the proletariat and of the mass in general’, and ‘we can and should overcome it [unreasoning trust] only ideologically, by comradely persuasion, by pointing to the lessons of experience’ (Lenin, 1977b: 42).

A situation that requires critique is one where intellectual ideas and political proposals merely reflect the relatively backward levels of people’s consciousness or common sense. Critique is also necessary when such thinking is not based on a commitment to truth, i.e. when, for example, thinking of Leftists outstrips a given stage of development of the objective process to such an extent that ‘They alienate themselves from the current practice of the majority of the people and from the realities of the day, and show themselves adventurist in their actions.’ (Mao, 1937: para 24) . Indeed, ‘some regard their fantasies as truth, while others strain to realize in the present an ideal which can only be realized in the future’ (ibid.) (for example, some say that there is no need for a socialist state following the overthrow of capitalism).

But critical knowledge, or ruthless criticism, is not enough. ‘The weapon of criticism cannot…replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force’ (Marx, 1844). In other words, the fortress of objective structures – capitalism and its state apparatuses – must be overthrown. To overthrow the world, we not only need to know the justification for it (we need to know that the current world is inadequate and why, and we need to know why things cannot be reformed) but also how to overthrow the fortress. The fourth function of knowledge claims is to help the masses overthrow the current social order.

Practical – and revolutionary – function of knowledge claims

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 objective world. Indeed, all action involves theory, or at least some degree of coherent conscious thinking (as opposed to unthinking or semi-conscious reflexes) about what to do and why and how. Living our daily life requires true consciousness. Or, as Lukacs put it: ‘The most primitive kind of work, such as the quarrying of stones by primeval man, implies a correct reflection of the reality he is concerned with. For no purposeful activity can be carried out in the absence of an image, however crude, of the practical reality involved. Practice can only be a fulfilment and a criterion of theory when it is based on what is held to be a correct reflection of reality’ (Lukacs, 1971: xxv).

Knowledge informs practice which could include such things as: making social, economic and environmental policy, fighting for justice on the street or through an organization, and engaging in activities to change a state that serves a narrow elite to one that serves, and is controlled by, the toiling majority.

The aim of knowledge, or the aim of scientific analysis, cannot be just intellectual curiosity. ‘Science must not be a selfish pleasure’.[14] Indeed, ‘Knowledge can be … useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of life, for the preservation of the species’ (Lenin, 1962: 139–140). ‘Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote themselves to scientific pursuits must be the first to place their knowledge at the service of humanity’ (Lafargue, 1890: para 6).

But why does the question of the service of humanity arise? It arises because there are certain things in the natural and social worlds that prevent human beings (the bottom 80% or so) from flourishing (or becoming what they can potentially become) and that lead to their alienation from the conditions under which they live and from one another. These conditions prevent human beings from meeting their social and bodily needs and enjoying the freedom from want and from avoidable ecological damages. These conditions exist in the natural world, even if the effects of natural mechanisms are socially mediated. In the social world, in all class societies, the fact that society’s productive resources are controlled by a minority, apart from the under-development of productive forces, is the major reason for suffering of common people. In capitalism as the most fully developed class society, conditions of production are privately controlled by a small minority which uses these conditions (means of production) to accumulate wealth in its abstract form by exploiting the masses (workers and petty producers). This, along with the fact that capitalist social relations act as a barrier to the further development of productive forces in an ecologically sustainable way, and because of contradiction between global scale of accumulation and nation-state centric capitalist politics always pointing to the necessity for war, is the major reason for the humanity’s suffering.[15] There are also institutional obstacles (in the form of state’s coercive apparatuses, conservative political parties and associations of workers and farmers) to the improvement of human lives. These conditions can and must be not only critiqued but also changed, and this requires knowledge.

Marx indeed believed that his ideas would ‘allow for…concerted action by the workers, and give direct nourishment and impetus to the requirements of the class struggle and the organization of the workers into a class’ (Marx’s letter to Kugelmann in Marx and Engels, 1982: 171–172). In another context Marx (1866) said: ‘I consider that what I am doing through this work [his theoretical work for Capital] is far more important for the working class than anything I might be able to do personally [e.g. politically, at a working class gathering]’.

‘From the Marxist viewpoint, theory is important. …But Marxism emphasizes the importance of theory precisely and only because it can guide action. If we have a correct theory but…do not put it into practice, then that theory, however good, is of no significance. The active function of knowledge manifests itself not only in the active leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but – and this is more important – it must manifest itself in the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice. The knowledge which grasps the laws of the world must be redirected to the practice of changing the world, must be applied anew in the practice of production, in the practice of revolutionary class struggle and revolutionary national struggle and in the practice of scientific experiment’ (Mao, 1937:para 19).

Neutral knowledge about a class society is not possible. Ideas about the capitalist class society ultimately can only be socialist or bourgeois: ‘the only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). (Lenin, 1902:23)

Dialectical method prompts us to maintain the connection between theory on the one hand and the intention and actual political practice involved in changing the world on the other. Because dialectics sees everything as changing and because therefore it ‘does not let itself be impressed by anything’, dialectics is ‘in its very essence critical and revolutionary’ (Marx, 1887:15).

‘Marxist philosophy holds that the most important problem does not lie in understanding the laws of the objective world and thus being able to explain it, but in applying the knowledge of these laws actively to change the world’ (Mao, 1937: para 19). Change in the world happens in two forms. Some changes are intra-system and other changes involve changing the system itself (i.e. changing one mode of production – capitalism – to another, socialism). The distinction between theoretical and empirical types of knowledge claim is related to the distinction between these two types of change or political practice.

The practice that is informed by knowledge that is more empirical can only inform more reform-oriented changes (immediate and small-scale changes, including policy-changes of a given government).[16] The practice that is informed by knowledge of a more theoretical nature (such as mechanisms of class-exploitation, etc.), when combined with more empirical knowledge (including historical facts) conducted in the light of a defensible theory, tends to be about more radical, thorough-going changes, which might be based on the struggle for immediate changes or transitional demands.[17] The more radical changes, ultimately, address the fundamental needs of the majority. So, true, scientifically-arrived-at knowledge that unpacks fundamental mechanisms in society is, generally, in the interest of the majority and contributes to revolutionary changes.

Revolution requires a material force: a numerically large mass of workers who are suffering, who are class conscious and who are engaged in trade union and political struggle, and who are concentrated in major geographical centers of production and cities. Revolution also requires: agitation, organization, propaganda and theory, and program (the view of what is to be done and how). One can say that knowledge or theory informs propaganda work[18] and program, as well as agitational[19] and organizational work. It is true that knowledge, including propositional and explanatory knowledge as well as critique of the world (capitalism/imperialism and its capitalist state, etc.) and conservative/reformist ideas that help continue the world and that argue against its radical alternative, is not enough for revolutionary change. The material force of the capitalist world must encounter the material force of organizations of the masses. But without knowledge, revolutionary change will not occur, and practice will be limited to small-scale intra-system changes at best: ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism [reformism] goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity’ (Lenin, 1902:12). Revolution does need, apart from agitation, propaganda and organization, ‘a correct revolutionary theory’ (Lenin, 1968). Without theory of capitalist society, masses will not possess class consciousness. Indeed, socialist theory is that consciousness. 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’.[20]

Indeed, ideas, and especially, ideas in the form of theory, can become, or it can serve, ‘as a material force’. For this to happen, i.e. for theory – or knowledge, more generally – to serve as a material force against the existing material force to be transformed, two conditions need to be met. One is that theory must ‘grasp the root of the matter’, i.e. it must understand the origin of human suffering at its roots which are located in the social relations and the mechanisms. The latter concern exploitative property relations and the class character of the state which produce a material world where there is profit and enjoyment in one pole and misery in another pole. Another condition is that theory must grip the minds of the masses. To change and challenge the world, ideas about it have to be changed and challenged. Conservative ideas must be challenged. Existing ideas advocating change (reformist ideas) must be challenged too so they become more radical. Production of radical ideas needs the participation in this process of thinkers connected to the masses, including thinkers who have de-classed their bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origins.

If theory says that capitalism is the major cause of humanity’s problems, then this points to the socialist proposal for change (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.

Not any kind of theory will work for revolutionary change. What is needed is Marxist theory, that is based on materialist dialectics and scientifically understands society from the class standpoint and that advocates revolutionary seizure of state power by the working class to establish socialism. Marxism absorbs the best ideas humanity has created that are scientific and that reflect the interests of the masses. …[B]y following the path of Marxist theory we shall draw closer and closer to objective truth (without ever exhausting it); but by following any other path we shall arrive at nothing but confusion and lies. (Lenin, 1962: 143). This is clear from the definition of Marxism as a set of knowledge claims given by Lenin (1908): ‘the Marxian doctrine, which directly serves to enlighten and organise the advanced class in modern society, indicates the tasks facing this class’. Lenin (1917b:20) says in The State and Revolution: ‘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.’

‘In [Marx’s] own theoretical work his aim was to serve what he considered the practical needs of the working class in its struggle against capitalism throughout the world. This for Marx did not mean an abandonment of claims to objectivity or scientific truth, but the opposite.’ (Mattick, 1979) And taking sides and making true knowledge claims based on reason and evidence are not mutually contradictory. ‘Communists must be ready at all times to stand up for the truth, because truth is in the interests of the people’ (Mao, 1945).

Marx’s renewed study of economics in the 1850s reflected his conviction that socialist revolution would have to come out of a response to social conditions, including capitalist crisis, on the part of the workers. Hence Marx dedicated his life’s work to show how capitalism simultaneously ‘creates the form and the content of its overthrow’ (Mattick, 1979). But Capital is more than a theory of capitalist development: Mattick (1979) says that ‘by demonstrating a new way of interpreting [society], [it] provides a necessary weapon for the struggle against the system. Marx in fact begins his Capital Volume 1 with a view of communism (associated producers) and ends his text with a call to expropriate the expropriators (capitalists). In a letter to a friend, Marx (1867) said: ‘Capital. A Critique of Political Economy…. is without question the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included)’.

The main task that Marx took on as a revolutionary intellectual, however, was the task of theory: the elaboration of a set of concepts, at a fairly abstract level, that would permit a better comprehension of the struggle between labor and capital. He wanted his work on capitalism to ‘be more accessible to the working class – a consideration which to me outweighs everything else’ (Mattick, 1979). ‘The function of theory was to help the movement as a whole clarify its problems and possibilities’ (ibid.)

‘Everything that happens in philosophy has, in the last instance, not only political consequences in theory, but also political consequences in politics: in the political class struggle’[21] (Althusser, 1976). ‘Marx’s philosophical materialism alone has shown the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have hitherto languished. Marx’s economic theory alone has explained the true position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism’ (Lenin, 1977a: 48). It is no wonder that ‘The enemies of democracy have, therefore, always exerted all their efforts to “refute”, undermine and defame [the philosophy of Marxism as] materialism, and have advocated various forms of philosophical idealism’ (Lenin, 1977a: 45).

Practice, including class struggle, informs/validates knowledge

We acquire truth about the world by a combination of reasoned, coherent argument and evidence obtained by sensations produced by practice. Practice also validates our knowledge. Practice includes activity in production and exchange and meeting one’s material and cultural needs. Practice ‘takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits’ (Mao, 1937: para 3).

‘[W]e stress the significance of social practice in the process of cognition precisely because social practice alone can give rise to human knowledge’ (Mao, 1937: para 16). ‘Whoever wants to know a thing has no way of doing so except by coming into contact with it, that is, by living (practicing) in its environment’ (ibid.: para 9). We gain knowledge by practice that includes: experiments in laboratories; speaking to people in society; reading archival materials; going to pubs, temples and churches; joining a strike and reflecting on it; writing a political exposure for a workers’ movement; teaching; attending festivals, and just going about the daily business of living and interacting with people and nature.

The nature of production and exchange, a crucial extra-intellectual practice, affects knowledge claims. Where there is slavery or feudal relations of production, it is very difficult to develop socialistic ideas or perhaps imagine the idea of computers. In Capital Volume 1, Marx explains why Aristotle could not offer a view of equal exchange because there was no such thing in a slave society he lived in: ‘Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers’ (Marx, 1887:40). In pre-capitalist societies in general, ‘the small scale of production limited [human beings’] outlook. It was not until the modern proletariat emerged along with immense forces of production (large-scale industry) that [people were] able to acquire a comprehensive, historical understanding of the development of society and turn this knowledge into a science, the science of Marxism’ (Mao, 1937 para 4). ‘In feudal society it was impossible to know the laws of capitalist society in advance because capitalism had not yet emerged, the relevant practice was lacking. Marxism could be the product only of capitalist society’ (ibid.: para 9). Capitalism itself goes through changes which prompt changes in intellectual/theoretical views on it. For example, ‘Marx, in the era of laissez-faire capitalism, could not concretely know certain laws peculiar to the era of imperialism beforehand, because imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, had not yet emerged and the relevant practice was lacking’ which Lenin and others filled.’ (ibid.).

The history of society is of course the history of how production and exchange, including human beings’ metabolic relation with nature and within society, evolve. But crucially the history of society is also the history of class struggle, as Marx and Engels say in the Communist Manifesto. If this is the case then the history of human knowledge is, more or less, the history of the reciprocal connection between class struggle and human knowledge. Indeed, ‘Of [the] other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of [humanity’s] knowledge’ (Mao, 1937: para 3). Class struggle is always from above: this is the class struggle by the ruling class and its state against the exploited classes. Class struggle is also from below: this is the class struggle by the exploited classes.[22] Class struggle is always ideological as well as material/economic and political. Given the close link between ideas and interests, ruling class interests shape knowledge.

On the one hand: ‘the bias of the exploiting classes [have] always distorted history’ (Mao, 1937: para 4). These classes control the means of material production and exchange, so they have a massive influence on how ordinary people view themselves and the wider society. On the other hand, alternative ideas do get produced: when socialist knowledge producers are involved in, or connected to, class struggle, and when they reflect on the masses’ experience of struggle as well as the ruling class struggle, new knowledge claims are produced or old claims are demolished.

Marx (1845) famously said: ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question’. And, class struggle is one of the most important forms of practice.

‘If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself.’ (Mao, 1937: para 9). Similarly, in the social world, ‘If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution’ (ibid.). Mao says ‘only through personal participation in the practical struggle to change reality can you uncover the essence of that thing or class of things and comprehend them’. ‘Leaving aside their genius, the reason why Marx, Engels [and others]… could work out their theories was mainly that they personally took part in the practice of the class struggle and the scientific experimentation of their time; lacking this condition, no genius could have succeeded. (Mao, 1937: para 9)’

There are limits to direct experience as the basis of knowledge, however. At the level of society as a whole, ultimately, ‘All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience as it is processed through mental reflections’ (ibid.: para 9). But given individuals ‘cannot have direct experience of everything; as a matter of fact, most of our knowledge comes from indirect experience, for example, all knowledge from past times and foreign lands’. To our ancestors and to foreigners, such knowledge was – or is – a matter of direct experience, and this knowledge is reliable if in the course of their direct experience’ it has been subjected to analysis by methods of abstraction mentioned earlier. ‘Moreover, what is indirect experience for me is direct experience for other people. Consequently, considered as a whole, knowledge of any kind is inseparable from direct experience’ (ibid.). Indeed, Marx and Engels reflected on class struggle when they did not have a chance to participate in them. It is also the case that socialists do not participate in the class struggle from above, so they can learn about it through their critical reflection on it.

‘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 work of changing the world radically, including revolutionary work, requires intellectual work. Intellectual work encompasses theoretical work, which is a set of statements that provide general explanations of empirical events, that is supported (or at least, supportable) by empirical evidence, and that allows us to critique not only the world but also the inadequate ideas about it. Marxist theory ‘is intended to inform practical political activity in order to radically change the complex of social institutions which make the theory itself possible’ (Kilminster, 1982). There are some who ‘respect experience but despise theory, and therefore cannot have a comprehensive view of an entire objective process, lack clear direction and long-range perspective, and are complacent over occasional successes and glimpses of the truth. If such persons direct a revolution, they will lead it up a blind alley’ (Mao, 1937:para 17). Much academic knowledge is of this type.

‘The willingness for revolutionary action is a precondition for mastering the Marxist dialectic’, and Marxism, as a material-dialectical analysis of society, is ‘the theoretical tool of revolutionary action’ (Trotsky, 1973: 115). Human knowledge arises from practice and in turn serves practice. Theory and practice can only fully develop in connection with one another. People have been trying to understand the world in many ways. The point indeed is to change it. But to change the world one needs to know the world scientifically and critically. And revolutionary action and the intention to change the world (i.e. the willingness for revolutionary action) inform the way in which we try to know the world.


[1] Raju J Das is Professor at York University. Email: Website: Twitter: @Raju_DasYorkU. His most recent book is Marx’s Capital, Capitalism and Limits to the State:Theoretical Considerations. London: Routledge.

[2] Counterposing ‘hard labour’ to ‘intellectual work’ smacks of anti-intellectualism that is popular among Far Right ‘populists’.

[3] These refer to specific human beings or a group of them, a city, a village, an economic sector, etc.

[4] Marx's law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall or Lenin’s theory of the tendency towards class differentiation can be seen in this way.

[5] Marx (1973: 34) says in Grundrisse, ‘The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. …[T]he method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being’.

[6] There are many types of abstraction. There is the abstraction of levels of generality, vantagepoint and extension (Ollman, 2003). Then one also abstracts from contingent conditions to focus on necessary relations, as in critical realism (Sayer, 1992).

[7] ‘For Lenin as a Marxist ‘the concrete analysis of the concrete situation is not an opposite of “pure” theory, but – on the contrary – it is the culmination of genuine theory, its consummation – the point where it breaks into practice’. Without any exaggeration it may be said that Marx’s final, definitive thesis on Feuerbach [concerning the need to change the world] …found its most perfect embodiment in Lenin and his work. Marx himself threw down the challenge and answered it in the realm of theory. He gave an interpretation of social reality which provided the appropriate theoretical basis for changing it. But it was only with Lenin that this theoretico-practical essence of the new Weltanschauung became – without abandoning or suppressing theory – actively embodied in historical reality’. (Lukacs, 1924)

[8] Although here I equate explanatory knowledge claims to theoretical knowledge, I acknowledge that explanations that are time-and-place-specific (i.e. empirical explanation) is also possible.

[9] See Das (2014).

[10] See, Das (2022).

[11] ‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism… is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object…, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively’ (Marx, 1845)

[12] Encyclopedia of Marxism. (Undated).

[13] Encyclopedia of Marxism (Undated).

[14] The assumption here is that satisfying intellectual curiosity is a source of pleasure.

[15] See Das (2017)

[16] There is a ‘strange’ similarity between workers’ economic organizations (e.g. trade unions) and academics, and therefore between their respective forms of consciousness: their activity and thinking concern the symptoms of the system rather than the system itself.

[17] Transitional demands stem ‘from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to… the conquest of power by the proletariat’ (Trotsky, 1931). Transitional demands include the demand that: everyone enjoy secure employment with a legislated living wage that rises with inflation in the cost of subsistence goods and services, that everyone has access to housing and health-care, etc.

[18] ‘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.’ (Lenin, 1901:40).

[19] ‘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’ (Lenin, 1901:40).

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

[21] This is also true about scientific understanding of things. ‘Throughout the civilised world the teachings of Marx evoke the utmost hostility and hatred of all bourgeois science’ (Lenin, 1913).

[22] This struggle includes not only economic struggle understood in the usual sense but also struggle against attacks on democratic rights, including of oppressed groups and against ecological damages that adversely affect the masses disproportionately.


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