On Political Economy and Political Theory


Jean Paul Sartre in the fifties made the somber remark that things were so bad at the Sorbonne in the 1920s that the University did not even have a Chair in Marxism.  In asserting the fact at that time, he was of course assuming that things at mid-century had changed dramatically and that Marxism had become a vital intellectual force in French universities.  Sartre in Europe could not perhaps imagine how curious his remarks sound in American context.  If one reads Thorstein Veblen’s account of United States universities early in the 20th century (The Higher Learning in America) or Upton Sinclair’s Goosestep about them in the 1920s, then Sartre’s headshaking about French universities appears in a different light.  For Veblen and Sinclair suggest not only the absence of Marxism but the absence of any critical thought as well.  Sinclair soundly demonstrates that American universities were run directly by a “plutocracy” which hired, fired, and terrorized all faculty who showed even the slightest deviation from establishment thought.  The idea that Marxism might be taught in these institutions would be tragically laughable.

Except for an upsurge of Marxist thought and action during the Depression (and this upsurge was pronounced, as would be expected, almost exclusively outside universities), this abysmal state of affairs endured well into the sixties in the United States and Canada.  The lowest ebb perhaps is indicated in the fifties by Paul Baran’s remark that all the Marxist economists in the United States could be put into a taxicab.  When I was a graduate student in sociology in the fifties, Marx was not read and, if mentioned in class, was alluded to as an interesting, but better forgotten, wrong-headed thinker.  His work was at best one of the outmoded “classics.”  Even C. Wright Mills, who was radical but non-Marxist, was rejected as unprofessional and unscientific, seldom assigned in class, and only read in private by some students.

All of this has changed rather dramatically since the 1960s — not evenly and across disciplines, since, for example, economics seems to remain the dismal and apologetic discipline it has been for so long (perhaps I am being a little unfair here), but what Mills called the Great American Celebration is under critical attack in substantial parts of university intellectual life.  And along with the intellectual revitalization generated by feminism, Marxism has had a genuine renewal in North American universities.

But there is a paradox here, and one that applies to universities in all Western national contexts.  The academic respectability of Marxism does not necessarily correspond with an upsurge of Marxism in the wider society.  In the North American case, the opposite state of affairs prevails.  It seems that intellectual development and receptiveness to Marxism in universities is possible at the same time as the subject is hardly mentioned in society at large.  If I am right about this, what seems to be the explanation?

The explanation which I will attempt to give will hopefully shed light upon the distinction suggested by the title of this essay.  But first I must digress both historically and theoretically.  One of the most salient features about the works of Marx and Engels is the fact that they were produced in a century which was dominated by and suffused with positivism.  Although Marx and Engels were quite critical of the cruder versions of positivism (what they called mechanical materialism) promulgated by the liberal optimism of the age, certain unquestioned assumptions about science were simply part of the intellectual atmosphere of the time.  For example, Marx conceived of his analysis of capitalism as the uncovering of the “laws of motion” for that kind of society.  Inherent in scientific “law” is the idea of human history as a determined process with primitive communism at its beginnings and classnessness with industrialization as its inevitable result.  And while this latter idea is never stated so baldly in their works, there are enough examples there to lead others to easily interpret things in this way.

Much of the falsification of Marxism by future “Marxism” is rooted in positivist assumptions.  If the contradictions of capitalism are maturing by their own inherent logic, and if the growing industrial working class produced by capitalism is slowly but surely coming to revolutionary consciousness in this process, then socialism appears to be an inevitable result of these laws of motion.  And if bourgeois democracy, however tarnished, is the highest political form reached in history, then the utilization of this democracy will be the vehicle for the easy transition to the next highest form of society.

I am not asserting by these remarks that Marx and Engels were full-fledged positivists.  Their numerous discussions of the importance of dialectical method and a deep sense of contradictions, disruption, and uneven change in history indicate quite the opposite.  And their awareness of the onesidedness of so much of nineteenth-century thought shows how very much they were ahead of their time.  That Marx was clearly aware of the dangers of positivism is demonstrated in his Critique of the Gotha Program and in his claim, when facing reformist Marxism toward the end of his life, that he was not a Marxist.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the presence of positivism in nineteenth-century Marxist thought is illustrated in the most significant development of Marxism in the 20th century, the work of Vladimir Lenin.  One of Lenin’s most singular contributions to Marxism is his critique of positivism, especially in its already consummated form in revisionism.  And although Lenin did make contributions to the political economy of Marxism in his works on capitalist development in Russia and on imperialism in a monopoly capitalist world, his greatest development of Marxism is in the area of political theory.

Let us remember that Lenin began his political work in a small group among many and varied other small groups in backward Russia.  Europe, especially Germany, was the growing bastion of proletarian thought and action.  Not only did Germany possess the material force of large industrial unions, Marxist political parties, newspapers, and publishing houses (more or less in the open in bourgeois democracies).  It also possessed the intellectual force of the nineteenth-century Marxist position that advanced and growing capitalism is the one and only harbinger of socialism.  This latter idea was so strong and so cogent that it was never fully confronted by Lenin right to the end of his life.  It is significant in this context that the leader of German social democracy (all of Marxism was called social democracy until the First World War) was Karl Kautsky and that Kautsky had been bequeathed the intellectual legacy of Marx and Engels.

When Lenin confronted what he considered to be the betrayal of Marxism in European and Russian social democracy, the enormous corpus of Marxist political economy was not what he could turn to for support.  It was not that that work did not contain much that even today remains valid, but that its validity, with the wrong political emphasis, can lead to reformism as well as revolutionary thought and action.  Again lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing here that Marx and Engels were not revolutionary.  What I am suggesting is that their primary emphasis on the way capitalism operates, analyzed in the manner of nineteenth-century science, gives that work a cast which 20th-century reformist Marxism could use for its own purposes.  Significantly, Marx and Engels’ critiques of falsifiers of theory and practice like Lasalle, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Duhring were critiques more of their mistaken ideas than of their consolidated false political practice.  Only with Lenin, at a time of the development of the more political side of Marxism, are false ideas within the left seen as more pernicious; and only with Lenin does the issue of opportunism come to the forefront of revolutionary Marxism.

Another factor supports the argument I am making here.  In Lenin’s most politically theoretical work, State and Revolution, written on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, he revitalizes the most revolutionary side of nineteenth-century Marxism.  But in doing so, his major point of reference is mainly one work by Marx written toward the end of his life.  This is Marx’s political analysis of the birth and destruction of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France.  The political lessons Marx derives from this experience leads him to articulate, for the first time, ideas in political theory which Lenin sees as central to Marxism as revolutionary practice.

Marx is often quoted in 20th-century social democratic thought for speculating about the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism, a view that he strikingly rejects in his analysis of the Commune experience.  And in Lenin’s later analysis, facing a big and powerful European movement espousing a parliamentary road to socialism, Lenin firmly rejected this possibility by reiterating the centrality of the Commune tradition in revolutionary theory.  The state, as Ralph Milliband eloquently elaborates much later, is not simply the temporary government in power (temporary in bourgeois democracy), but is in actuality an aggregate of political institutions including the military and police, civil service, judiciary, education system, and legislative assemblies.  These institutions interlock with prevailing capitalist economic power in a multitude of ways, and in ways often more permanent and more important than those economic connections with the elected national government.  Even if elected, an ostensibly socialist government cannot implement a socialist program if these other political institutions remain intact.  In the 20th century, the most chilling example of this experience was the election of the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s.  Hamstrung by all the other conservative political institutions of the capitalist state, Allende was restricted and undermined at almost every attempt to institute a socialist program.  In the end, his own commitment to the legalisms which elected him, to his belief in the neutrality of the professional army, led to his downfall; that army in league with American imperialism violently overthrew the Allende government, murdering him in the process, and ushering in a long period of fascist tyranny.

Already in 1916, Lenin’s State and Revolution articulated the political lesson that remains a central plank of revolutionary theory.  Socialism is not possible without the “smashing” of the older bourgeois state form.  To believe as does all of contemporary social democracy that a simple election of a progressive government is the road to socialism is the undermining of the potential for revolutionary consciousness and action.  This belief underscores the basically opportunist nature of social democracy.

Lest I be misunderstood here, the recognition that the bourgeois state cannot be quietly taken over ready-made for socialism does not mean that any immediate socialist program must advocate the violent overthrow of the bourgeois state.  The need for such overthrow is a basic position in political theory while the implementation of such an overthrow is a tactical issue to be decided in specific conditions.  What defines opportunism in this case is the theoretical position taken by social democracy that such overthrow is not at any time necessary; in fact social democracy in the contemporary period rejects the need in principle.

It is significant that in almost all of modern political economy the question of opportunism is not raised.  Again Marx’s own work and its roots in nineteenth-century positivism partially explain this omission.  I have already stated that the critical encounters which Marx and Engels had with opponents on the left did not treat these opponents as opportunist (I don’t recall the word even being used at that time).  It was not that these opponents were not pilloried with harsh polemics, but the major thrust of the critiques were made with regard to the deviations from and falsifications of scientific truth.  This predisposition to perceive oppositional views as wrongheaded, as basically in need of correction through intellectual exposure, is in line with a positivist outlook.  Again with Lenin, the whole tenor of the treatment of such opponents changes, a change which signifies a new emphasis in Marxist analysis.

Lenin is often treated derisively by critics on the left and on the right for his lack of equanimity, or even basic decency in his approach to what he called would-be Marxists.  To repeatedly call Karl Kautsky, an old and trusted comrade of Engels (Engels lived in Kautsky’s house toward the end of his life), a renegade seems to demonstrate a quality of inhumaneness not befitting a socialist.  Lenin in all his writings against such opponents indicates a style that not only wishes to expose mistakes of potential allies, but destroy their very political existence.  I would like to argue here that this style which is often seen as unique and somewhat aberrant is in fact one of essential features of Marxism at its most acutely political.  To defend this argument demands a more lengthy discussion of the very knotty problem of opportunism.

In his pamphlet on revisionism, Lenin states that the major difficulties facing Marx and Engels in their time was the clear articulation of their ideas and their separation from false or partial views of the past (mainly classical political economy).  Moreover, says Lenin, capitalism itself in Marx’s time still had progressive possibilities whereas, in his (i.e. Lenin’s) time, it had become so totally bankrupt that it had no basis for theoretical justification.  In the modern context he continues, only the working class and its theoretical outlook could develop with scientific credibility.  It would be expected, continued Lenin, that these social conditions would draw multitudes of thinkers into the socialist camp.  And with these new adherents would come viewpoints and actions which water down, falsify, or corrupt the fundamental principles of Marxism.  That is, concluded Lenin, one of the major new problems for Marxism would not be its overt enemies, but seeming friends within.

Another link in Lenin’s argument leads to the centrality of opportunism in political theory.  In What Is to Be Done?, written early in his career, Lenin comes to grips with what may be considered the center of positivist Marxism.  Here he states unequivocally that the working class left to itself will never make a revolution.  This simple proposition is a bold stroke which represents a fundamental demarcation between Marxism and revisionism.  It is bold because it apparently rejects the centrality of the industrial proletariat as the leading force in the overthrow of capitalism and in the generation of a new socialist society.  Didn’t Marx proclaim that the modern working class is the first universal class in history, the only class bequeathed by history to usher in a classless future?  Didn’t his discovery of the laws of motion of capitalist society predict with iron logic the growth of this huge propertyless class, literate and skilled in the special misery of the modem factory system?  In short, do not the inherent dynamics of capitalism inevitably produce a class of workers more and more conscious of its revolutionary mission?

Yes, says Lenin, capitalism has led to the formation of two great classes, one representing the centralizing concentration of capital and the other the increasing mass of propertyless labor free only to do the alienating to work of capital.  And these free laborers are the most progressive class in history.  But the process that creates this class does not automatically create revolutionary consciousness.  In fact, he asserts that the life conditions of the proletariat, although generating the tendency to rebellion (a new tendency since it bears the seeds of a truly egalitarian society), are not conducive to full consciousness.  The work is brutalizing; making ends meet is an overwhelming task; and literacy is minimal and limiting.  Left to itself, asserts Lenin, the working class in its contestation with capital, does not go beyond trade union consciousness, the consciousness that demands the improvement of the conditions of work within the context of the existing society.  The development of revolutionary consciousness, however, demands stimulus from something outside the class, the agency of revolutionary leadership.  Moreover, this leadership can come from nowhere except the strata of intellectuals whose initial class origins, and certainly their life conditions, are not proletarian.

To assume, says Lenin, that the working class by itself will bring about socialism and that all it needs (if needed at all) are prods to its own self discovery is the first axiom of revisionism.  It is also a position taken by literally all large established socialist parties in Europe in Lenin’s time.  And these social democratic parties, unlike our contemporary ones, all considered themselves Marxist and revolutionary (that is, their party platforms saw the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie as the necessary prelude to socialism).  The thrust of theorizing about the working class in revisionist thought involves the charting or projection of working-class possibilities which leads, says Lenin, to what he called tailism, or following the most backward tendencies of the class.  For the working class is not simply all of a piece automatically and en masse responding to the ongoing crises of capitalist development.  It always suffers more or less from the dominant bourgeois atmosphere within which it breathes and lives, suffusing it with much that is retrogressive.  At its most retrogressive, as we well know, it can even support fascism (it was that support which stimulated Gramsci to elaborate on the problem of ideological hegemony after fascism took power in Italy in the ’20s).  And, the most progressive of the working class is often so mired in the battle for everyday survival that, without the theoretical assistance of intellectuals from without, its consciousness does not develop the broadness and long-range capacities necessary for revolutionary transformation.  In fact, under bourgeois democratic conditions, where reform presents so many varied options for political action, the proclivity to reformism is strongly reinforced.  When progressive intellectuals who are steeped in positivism give advice to the class, the result is the reinforcement of that reformism.  The 20th-century history of the relationship between social democratic (or labor) parties and the working class in all Western societies bears witness to this fatal outcome.

But, asserts Lenin, the problem of revisionism is not only a theoretical one; it is also an organizational problem.  In the preceding paragraph, I intentionally used the word “advice” in discussing the way in which reformist intellectuals assist the working class.  The act of advising is extremely ambiguous since it can presume to respect the working class as the ultimate arbiter of its fate while at the same time leading it in certain directions.  To advise as an expert advisor is to proffer an opinion, and go home.  If, at the same time, the advisors proclaim that the working class is already the repository of all that is good and revolutionary, then the progressive intellectual actually becomes a leader who in principle refuses to lead.

Lenin branded the actions of these intellectuals as amateurish and irresponsible.  Instead he stated that revolutionary Marxism must forge a different form of leadership than that generated by revisionism.  It is in opposition to what he saw as the organizational form created by misleadership that he elaborated his most novel solution to the problem — the revolutionary party.  It is interesting to look at the historic moment that this idea took concrete form.  At an early meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903, it was natural that a discussion ensued about what criteria would determine membership in the Party.  A sharp division arose, a division based on one simple criterion.  Both sides agreed that a person could become a member of the party by agreeing to the Party’s principles (which were revolutionary at the time) and paying Party dues.  One side of the divide led by Lenin forwarded a third standard, one that demanded that the member must also be an active participant in the organization while the other side rejected this demand as too onerous, as too limiting of membership.  Lenin’s side carried the majority at this meeting with “majority” in Russian being “bolshevik” and minority in Russian being “menshevik.”  These historic words demarcated the beginning of the great and expanding divide that has marked the Marxist movement ever since.  For it is the very organizational nature of Marxist leadership that has distinguished revolutionary from revisionist Marxism.  It is not only that the working class needs leadership; it is also true that it needs leadership that is clearly distinguished from the kind of leadership found in all traditional bourgeois parties.  In all bourgeois parties, a new member proclaims allegiance to “principles” and may or may not be obliged to pay dues.  Since lies and deceit are the basis of the power of all bourgeois parties, a member rises in such a party by learning loyalty to these qualities.  In what way, asked Lenin, can a party, even when proclaiming Marxism, become anything but a replica of these traditional parties if it simply follows these principles?

The revolutionary party, on the other hand, must be a party of dedicated professionals.  The commitment of its members can be measured only by active engagement in political work.  And the work can be gauged only by those who themselves have been schooled by the rigors of progressive activity.

But the grounds for recruitment are only the beginning of the organizational distinction.  Another important element involves the means of policy formation and the means of carrying out policy.  Here we encounter perhaps a more controversial aspect of Lenin’s ideas — the process of democratic centralism.  The idea of democratic centralism, it seems to me, represents nothing more than a following through of the demand for a more dedicated political party.  If the major distinguishing feature in the revolutionary party is the expectation that every member be an active member, real democracy can become possible only if everyone is informed in decision-making and if everyone is more or less engaged in carrying out decisions.  The process of democratic centralism attempts to fulfill these tasks.  Given the overwhelming tradition of estrangement from public engagement that is our historic legacy, this process can be seen as a noble attempt to overcome this “alp.”  It demands not only that all members be fully informed about the policies and problems facing the organization, as well as the issues arising in the class the party is supposed to represent; democratic centralism also demands that all members must articulate their positions in open and public debate.  The periodic party conventions which determine the program of the party are not expected to be lockstep acquiescence to already agreed-upon leadership decisions.  They must involve a full and informed dialogue among members.  In short, a meeting among revolutionaries does not merely expect democratic practice; it demands it.  When, after a full airing of views, a decision is reached by a majority, then the full party is expected to carry out the party policy with unity and commitment.  This represents the centralist aspect of democratic centralism.

I am quite aware in articulating the principles of democratic centralism that the historical record of parties dedicated to these principles leaves much to be desired.  We are aware — and, if not, are constantly made aware — of the overcentralized activities in this type of party.  The problems involved in the typical critique of this party, however, is that it is made the basis for the rejection of the principles themselves.  In doing so, the critics either explicitly, or more commonly implicitly, accept the principles of bourgeois party formation so validly criticized by Lenin.  Sadly all this continues to occur 100 years later.  What must be reiterated is that the idea of a party of a new type was made in opposition to the proven failure of pre-existing parties.  The contemporary left, with its emphasis on political economy alone, is hardly even aware of the need for such opposition.

Let me digress for a moment and mention an anecdote from my own political biography.  When I moved to Canada from the United States forty-five years ago, I had my first experience with a social democratic party.  Canada has had for more than half a century a relatively successful third party, now called the New Democratic Party (NDP).  Since I wished to get acquainted with this Party, I went to a local riding association meeting.  At the meeting, I spoke briefly a couple of times and at the end of the meeting was approached and asked if I would like to become a delegate at the annual Party convention.  I replied that I was not even a member of the Party and was told that this was no problem.  “Just pay two bucks and you become a member.”  So I paid two dollars and attended the provincial Party convention as a bona fide delegate.  At the convention which had all the trappings and apparently open discussion found in any traditional bourgeois party, I discovered that all major policy had been made beforehand by an inner Party cabal.  Moreover, even though this Party, along with all other such parties still in the Second International (the International that began in Marx’s time), has jettisoned all vestiges of a socialist platform and has openly become the reform wing of the bourgeoisie, the organizational experience I encountered was no different from that in Lenin’s time when he fundamentally rejected its basis of organization.

Thus, what is supposed to be open, easy, and democratic is really simply irresponsible, negligent, and ultimately undemocratic.  More significantly for the present discussion, the critics from the left in Canada, those still calling themselves Marxist, criticize the NDP for its departure from socialism, and not for its organizational form.  Whether these critics wish to “reform the Party” or to form a new one, they almost never couch the critique in organizational terms.  When they talk about organization at all, they seldom fail to mention their hostility to “vanguard parties.”  This again reflects the left’s connection to a predominantly positivist Marxist tradition.

The issue of opportunism is at the core of political theory.  Yet you would never know it if you look at contemporary Marxist writing.  Dominated almost entirely by an emphasis on political economy alone, and taking place in a predominantly academic context, the issue of opportunism appears not to exist, or it appears to have never existed.  This kind of Marxism may be extremely sophisticated about issues of economic contradiction or class analysis; it is sharply critical of any variety of bourgeois theory and often clearly demarcates differences among Marxist political economists; but all this often becomes academic in the worst sense.  The work is in isolation from political activities with the class which the theory is supposed to represent.  Moreover, by analyzing classes in a passive way, this kind of political economy implicitly is waiting for the working class to act.  That is, the class alone, without leadership, is to demonstrate its own historic direction.  As with all positivism, the facts are allowed to speak for themselves whereas the goal of Marxist political theory is to challenge the possibilities of history with active intervention into working-class life.  This intervention cannot assume that all those doing political economy are all good fellows together, for this implicitly accepts the idea that our backwardness is due to working-class backwardness, never to problems in ourselves.  Political theory, on the other hand, must bring forth the analysis of Marxist interventions and their history, the separation of the honest and successful from the dishonest and harmful; that is, it studies Marxist intellectual life in rigorously political terms.  In our context, it must ask why the very interest in such issues has almost disappeared from Marxist analysis, why passivity has become the taken-for-granted order of the day.

After claiming the above, I would not suggest that the problem of opportunism is an easy problem or that the word has not been thrown around gratuitously and thoughtlessly in Marxist politics.  What I am claiming is that avoidance, denial, or ignorance of opportunism is a central problem in contemporary Marxism, and an insular political economy deepens the positivist Marxism which historically has been at the root of that opportunism.

Opportunism at its most general level articulates the principles of Marxist class analysis at the same time that its practice denies, obfuscates, or even rejects fundamental principles.  It commonly romanticizes any sign of working-class militancy at the same time as it does little or nothing to discover, generate, or sustain militancy.  More to the point of this essay, the separation of political economy from political theory, or the dedication to a political economy that does not even raise the historic issues developed by political theory, is a breeding ground for opportunism.  In this, our contemporary North American context, we find the tragic condition that Marxist political economy presents possibilities for a successful academic career at the same time as the most reactionary bourgeois agenda dominates political and social life in society at large.  This is not to assert that all university work in political economy is all opportunism or that all of it is fruitless, wrong, and deceitful since much of that work is vital and true especially when compared with the usual pap which parades as social scientific knowledge in the university.  What I am suggesting is that the insularity of this work, even when not explicitly positivist, reinforces passivity about the central issues of political theory.  It follows from this that, when attempts are made to bridge the gap between university and politics, then the political theory found in these accounts repeats the problems of old-style opportunism.  Here in Canada, for example, the major Marxist activity is what might be called left social democracy.  It recognizes the centrality of class and class conflict in opposition to the prevailing reformism of the NDP.  It also recognizes the need for the overthrow of capital as a precondition for the initiation of socialist transformation.  At the same time, it rejects all discussion of vanguard parties as sectarian and either wishes to reform the NDP or to form a real separate socialist party, one that is both mass and democratic.  This latter desire, I would contend, represents little more than the amateurishness and irresponsibility so roundly exposed and condemned 100 years ago.

Thus far, I have been discussing the issue of right opportunism as it is generated by a predominantly academic Marxism.  This is the opportunism that results in reformism and class collaboration; it appeals to the most backward consciousness of the working class and presents the greatest obstacle to real societal transformation.  There is, however, another form of opportunism which, while more transient and seemingly insignificant, can in certain circumstances be an equal obstacle to progressive change.  This is left opportunism, sometimes called ultraleftism or adventurism.  It has sometimes been downplayed, even by great revolutionaries like Lenin and Mao, as merely too much exuberance or youthful folly.  I think this is a mistake.  In the ’70s, for example, here in North America, small grouplets arose calling themselves Marxist-Leninist which in a very short time turned themselves into full-fledged parties.  Lacking any connection to the class they presumed to lead and in their analysis and programs demonstrating the most outlandish claims and prognostications, these groupings fell apart in very short order.  What characterizes all such “parties” is their articulation of valid aspects of revolutionary theory (the need for a disciplined party, the centrality of the working class for socialist transformation, the demand for the destruction of the bourgeois state, etc.) combined with the most idealized conception of themselves and the state of the working class.  Here in Canada, they saw the Canadian proletariat as in the same conditions and state of consciousness as the Russian proletariat in 1905 (heightening the need for immediate overthrow of the bourgeoisie) and condemned all demands for reform as reformism (at a time when prior reforms were stripped away from the Canadian people).

The results of ultraleftism make a mockery of Marxism.  Instead of leading the working class, ultraleftism isolates the class from revolutionary program and leadership.  It is significant that the rejection of vanguard parties by contemporary Marxism usually points to such ultraleft groups as examples of Leninist parties.  Thus, such groups give ammunition to those who fundamentally reject revolutionary tenets (not that they need much ammunition).  In some historical conditions, ultraleftism, or the wrong treatment of it, can lead to extremely dire consequences.  Witness the events of the Cultural Revolution in China where it appears that Mao expected ultraleftism to be a passing and transitory problem, whereas it was so significant (and even was manipulated by the right opportunism against which Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution) that the way was paved for the triumph of outright revisionism that now rules China.  I would suggest that in specific circumstances left opportunism can be as great an obstacle to progress as right opportunism.

In summary, the present essay, in delineating the consequences of an overemphasis on political economy, is not suggesting that the solution to the problem is the jettisoning of Marxist political economy.  Far from it.  Revolutionary Marxism at its most successful involves the integration of a real revolutionary party with a “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.”  An obsession with a party alone, separate from the real work of building one, i.e. without a real analysis of overall social conditions and the situation of the working class and other oppressed groups, is the hallmark of ultraleftism.  But an almost complete engagement with political economy, the tapping of the pulse of the working class without systematic and almost day-by-day intervention in and analysis of its struggles (and those of other groups) and its possibilities is the breeding ground for the easy acceptance of, if not commitment to, right opportunism.  This is the state of an academicized Marxism presently found in Western universities.  Under these conditions, the working class is “left to itself” to be misled by the panoply of trade union hacks, “expert” lawyers, and traditional social democrats which dominate the left today.

The diagnosis of the condition of the economy is an important part of Marxist work.  But this is only one part.  If the activities of Marxists is not only to analyze the world, but to change it, then it is also important to stimulate people in the most progressive directions.  In these activities, the most progressive possibilities can be discovered only with active intervention.  And this intervention is successful only if it is organized and systematic.  There are always parts of the working class, for example, which are quite ready for progressive thought and action.  These are not discoverable by passive diagnosis of the average conditions of the time.  They are only discoverable, and in fact often generated, by an understanding and engagement with that active theory which has shown positive results in the past.  The passive analysis of what is, whether intentionally or unintentionally, feeds the soft optimism of the easy road to socialism.  Even in terribly difficult times like our own, the sentimental optimism of a purely political economic analysis of events continues to hold sway.  Everyone admits that things are very bad, but the all-too-typical mode of Marxist analysis is always looking for positive developments as a basis for action, for positive signs of working-class revival, for history to take its predictable proper turn.  At the same time, in active political life, what there is of it, all the old errors, all the unanalyzed mistakes of the past, continue to repeat themselves.  Only a serious engagement with the accumulated political theory of the past, its successes and its failures, its mistakes and its opportunism, can begin the long process of overcoming this very harmful and unproductive state of affairs.

Herb Gamberg is a professor of sociology at Dalhousie University.  This paper was delivered at the Society for Socialist Studies Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 27-30 May 2009.

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