Where do Revolutionary Ideas Come From?


Reading The Manifesto of the Communist Party, there is an air of inevitability to the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism, in the same way that capitalism replaced feudalism before it.  If this is the case, why should we worry about the problems in the world? Surely we can just lie back and wait for socialism?


This way of thinking is not as uncommon as you might believe.

-          It was the explicit belief of the European socialist movement at the end of the 19th century, under the influence of Bernstein and Kautsky.

-          It was the thinking of a large part of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, the Mensheviks, through the Russian Revolution and even beyond it.

-          It underlies the thinking of the Socialist International, to which the NZ Labour Party belongs.

-          It is also implicit in the idea that revolutions are most likely to occur amongst the most impoverished people; that if people are desperate enough, they will rebel.


This is a mechanistic, determinist view. Something outside, such as the economy, causes or determines events. As we discussed earlier, this is the outlook or way of thinking of the orthodox (bourgeois) natural sciences; external causation.


It seems odd to find this sort of thinking in Marxism, which as we discussed earlier, draws from a different view of change; dialectics, which sees change arising from internal conflicts. An in other works we find Marx explicitly stressing the central role of human activity, not economic determinism, in social change.


“[People] make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted. The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” (Marx, 1869, p. 146)


Alienation of  Forces of Production


Marx and Engels argue that social forms, or the “social structure”, are forged continuously by the activity of people as they produce their livelihoods. People must be in a position to live to be active members of society and so the production of material life is the continual precondition of society (Marx & Engels, 1846, pp. 41, 47).


Production is a natural and social process, natural in that it involves a relationship between people and nature and social in that it is undertaken in co-operation with other individuals. Against technological-determinist conceptions, which see production determined by the tools and techniques available to people, Marx and Engels define this relationship between people and nature and people with each other as the “productive forces” of society (Marx & Engels, 1846, pp. 62). Productive forces are a form of human activity; material things only become productive forces in a particular social context (Avineri, 1969, p. 76; Sayer, 1987, pp. 26-27). The productive forces available make possible what can be undertaken in society, so any written history of humanity must treated in relation to the history of these productive forces (Marx & Engels, 1846, p. 49). But the conceptualisation of productive forces as “things”, separate from the social relations they are situated in, is to mystify or make a fetish of the way these social relations are experienced by individuals. The productive power of society appears to individuals not as their own productive power in unity with others but as an alien force outside them and independent of their will (Sayer, 1987, pp. 40, 44).


“Relations of production” are defined as the social relations between people in production: “the economic structure of society”, or “the same thing in legal terms” - property relations (Marx, 1859, p. 20-21). Rather than being sharply analytically distinguished, these social relations of production, then, are as much part of the productive forces of society as the tools and people involved in production. Marx’s concept of old relations of production becoming a fetter on the development of productive forces can be seen as new forms of organisation of production coming into conflict with older ones, the stuff of class struggle (Sayer, 1987, p. 35).


Avineri argues the distinction between “material base” and “superstructure” is not between “matter” and “ideas”, object and subject, but between two types of conscious human activity; one directed at the provision of conditions of human life and the other at the legitimisation of the specific forms of that activity (Avineri, 1969, p. 76).


So, it is not external necessity that constrains us from a better way of life, free from the horrors of capitalism, but rather it is the internal “traditions of the dead generations” that bind us. But what prevents us from simply shaking off these old ideas and reorganising society on a more humane basis? Marx argues that the normal operation of capitalist society generates false consciousness or a muddied idea of society, in which relations of oppression and domination are hidden.


Abolition of the wages system


Marx discusses the ideological nature of the wages system in Wage, Labour and Capital. If you ask a group of workers, he says, how much wages they get paid, they will identify different pay from different employers, different industries, or different tasks. But they will agree that wages represent payment for an amount of time worked or an amount of work.


Yet, Marx argues, this apparent trade of money for work is an illusion. What the capitalist actually purchases is labour-power, or ability to work. The capitalist purchases the worker’s labour-power for a week or month. Then the capitalist makes the worker labour for that specified time. The more the worker produces during this period, the more the capitalist profits.


To the capitalist, the purchase of labour-power is a commodity, just like purchasing raw materials, electricity, oil, photocopy paper. Wages are the price of labour-power. Like any commodity its price is determined by the labour necessary to produce and maintain it (food, clothing, shelter, education or training, a moral element), adjusted by the forces of supply and demand. Immigration, unemployment increases supply relative to demand, pushing wages down. Unionisation reduces supply relative to demand, pushing wages up. The introduction of more productive techniques reduces demand relative to supply.


Thus, despite face appearances, wages then, are not an exchange for work done, and are not a share of the workers in the commodities produced by them. “The labourer receives the means of subsistence in exchange for his labour-power; the capitalist receives, in exchange for this means of subsistence, the productive activity of the labourer, the creative force by which the worker not only replaces what he consumes, but also gives to the accumulated labour a greater value than it previously possessed.” (Marx, 1847)


Thus wage labour creates the alien power that dominates it, the toil of the workers enlarges the wealth and power of its master. Capital and wage labour are two sides of the same coin. “As long as the wage-labourer remains a wage-labourer, his lot is dependent upon capital. That is what the boasted community of interests between worker and capitalists amounts to.” (Marx, 1847).


“Let us suppose the most favourable case: if productive capital grows, the demand for labour grows. It therefore increases the price of labour-power, wages.” But the growth of capital will at the same time be much greater than the growth in wages. Even in this best case, the relative position of the working class will diminish; the power of capital over their lives will grow. Even if, through trade union solidarity, workers can obtain a wage increase relative to profits, the underlying antagonism does not diminish and the position will likely soon be reversed.


Thus, Marx’s argument is that the normal operation of capitalism generates an appearance of equal exchange in society; wages are exchanged for labour performed. Worker’s combination to gain a greater share of wages at the expense of profits appears to be a viable strategy for advancement. But beneath the surface of appearances we have seen that such a strategy can only have a temporary influence on the supply and demand equilibrium. While capitalist production relations remain, the power of capital over labour grows. Thinking that is restricted to surface appearances and the wages struggle is trade union consciousness or reformism.


“Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital ... They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system” (Marx, 1865).


Trade Union Consciousness


Lenin developed this notion that the spontaneous development of the workers movement can only lead to a trade union consciousness, the struggle for higher wages and reforms to the capitalist system. Much of Lenin’s discussion can be found in What is to be Done, where he used synonymously the terms trade union consciousness and “economism”, ie. restriction to the economic struggle.


Lenin argued that in a society divided into classes there are only two ideologies; capitalist or bourgeois ideology and working class or proletarian ideology. Capitalist ideology is dominant in society. While the media and the education system add to this, these are not the reasons for the dominance of capitalist ideology (cf. Lenin).[i] Capitalist ideology is dominant simply because it emerges spontaneously all the time from the immediate appearances of everyday life in a capitalist society; we are all free and equal in society, wages are paid in exchange for work done and so on. Trade union thinking and reformism, then are capitalist ideologies. They are widespread amongst the working class because these ideas have not been criticised as shallow.


From where can this proletarian criticism come? From organised groups of revolutionaries who have thought though the limitations of capitalism.


Lenin argued that while exposure of economic issues, comparing wages and conditions in one factory with those in another, could provide a starting point for political organisation, this was essentially merely trade-union work, teaching workers to sell their commodity on better terms.


Lenin argued that Political education was the critical component to the development of revolutionary proletarian consciousness. Political education should not be restricted to the political oppression of workers but the oppression of all classes and walks of life needed exposure. Nor did this have to follow agitation around economic issues. “Any and every manifestation of police tyranny and autocratic outrage” was the basis for education and mobilisation. In fact, Lenin argued that it was only possible to “raise the activity of the working masses” when this activity was not restricted to an economic issue, ie. when it involved “comprehensive political exposure.” (Lenin, 1902, pp. 412-17).


“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected … unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis ...” (Lenin, 1902, pp. 412-17).


“In order to become a Social-Democrat, the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real "inner workings"; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this "clear picture" cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what finds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc. These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.” (Lenin, 1902, pp. 412-17).


Why do workers not respond to these sorts of issues to the same degree as to struggles over wages and conditions? Lenin argues this is a symptom of weaknesses in organising by the RSDLP, failing “to organise sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react …” (Lenin, 1902, pp. 412-17).


The key here is effective mass mobilisation, rather than armchair sloganeering, or tailing the wake of the masses. Lenin shuns paper “calls to action” in favour of “live and striking exposures”. “To catch some criminal red-handed and immediately to brand him publicly in all places is of itself far more effective than any number of ‘calls’ … Only those who themselves go into action, and do so immediately, can sound such calls (Lenin, 1902, pp. 412-17).


With biting polemic Lenin rounds off the idea that revolutionary agitation should be limited to the wages struggle:

we are not children to be fed on the thin gruel of "economic" politics alone; we want to know everything that others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event. In order that we may do this, the intellectuals must talk to us less of what we already know and tell us more about what we do not yet know and what we can never learn from our factory and "economic" experience, namely, political knowledge. You intellectuals can acquire this knowledge, and it is your duty to bring it to us in a hundred- and a thousand-fold greater measure than you have done up to now; and you must bring it to us, not only in the form of discussions, pamphlets, and articles (which very often -- pardon our frankness -- are rather dull), but precisely in the form of vivid exposures of what our government and our governing classes are doing at this very moment in all spheres of life. Devote more zeal to carrying out this duty and talk less about "raising the activity of the working masses". We are far more active than you think, and we are quite able to support, by open street fighting, even demands that do not promise any "palpable results" whatever. It is not for you to "raise" our activity, because activity is precisely the thing you yourselves lack. Bow less in subservience to spontaneity, and think more about raising your own activity, gentlemen!


·         What are some examples of trade union consciousness or economism in Aotearoa today?


What is to be Done?


What is to be Done provides an organisational plan for building proletarian ideology that has been enormously influential in the Communist Movement. It was the explicit plan of the Bolshevik with of the RSDLP from 1903 to 1918 and it was used by much of the Communist International thereafter, and the ML resurgence in the 1960s and 70s.


What was often overlooked when this plan was reproduced were the conditions in which the Bolsheviks developed and applied this. The early 20th Century was a period of immense spontaneous workers struggle for economic and political reforms, culminating in the 1905 Revolution. The task facing revolutionaries at that time was of establishing and maintaining contact with these vast number of struggles and of wielding this into a coherent force that could strike blows against the regime.


Agitation was critical in these conditions. Lenin describes the impact of “exposure literature”:

The "leaflets" were devoted mainly to the exposure of the factory system, and very soon a veritable passion for exposures was roused among the workers. As soon as the workers realised that the Social-Democratic study circles desired to, and could, supply them with a new kind of leaflet that told the whole truth about their miserable existence, about their unbearably hard toil, and their lack of rights, they began to send in, actually flood us with, correspondence from the factories and workshops. This "exposure literature" created a tremendous sensation, not only in the particular factory exposed in the given leaflet, but in all the factories to which news of the, revealed facts spread. And since the poverty and want among the workers in the various enterprises and in the various trades are much the same, the "truth about the life of the workers" stirred everyone. Even among the most backward workers, a veritable passion arose to "get into print" -- a noble passion for this rudimentary form of war against the whole of the present social system which is based upon robbery and oppression. And in the overwhelming majority of cases these "leaflets" were in truth a declaration of war, because the exposures served greatly to agitate the workers; they evoked among them common demands for the removal of the most glaring outrages and roused in them a readiness to support the demands with strikes. Finally, the employers themselves were compelled to recognise the significance of these leaflets as a declaration of war, so much so that in a large number of cases they did not even wait for the outbreak of hostilities. As is always the case, the mere publication of these exposures made them effective, and they acquired the significance of a strong moral influence. On more than one occasion, the mere appearance of a leaflet proved sufficient to secure the satisfaction of all or part of the demands put forward. In a word, economic (factory) exposures were and remain an important lever in the economic struggle. And they will continue to retain this significance as long as there is capitalism, which makes it necessary for the workers to defend themselves. Even in the most advanced countries of Europe it can still be seen that the exposure of abuses in some backward trade, or in some forgotten branch of domestic industry, serves as a starting-point for the awakening of class-consciousness, for the beginning of a trade union struggle, and for the spread of socialism. (Lenin, 1902, pp. 398-402).


Much of What is to be Done is directed polemically at the overemphasis of the RSDLP in this economic agitation at the expense of political education.


It also contains plans for the creation of a Russia-wide newspaper to provide the means of centralising and channelling all the disparate threads of the great spontaneous upsurge in Russia. The party newspaper has been a central tool of Communist Parties ever-since, even where spontaneous movements have not been so widespread. In these latter cases, the paper has often become the central goal of the organisation, rather than organising and education work itself.


·         To what extent is there a passion for exposure among the working class in Aotearoa today?

·         What would the reaction of workers be towards “exposure literature” today?

·         Where are the main problems of factory workers expressed currently?

·         In what circumstances do exposures of working conditions agitate workers today?


Agitation and Propaganda


Lenin distinguishes two methods of political education, agitation and propaganda. He notes the traditional emphasis in the RSDLP on propaganda – presenting many ideas in an integrated manner to a relatively few people, eg. When discussing unemployment, the capitalist nature of crisis, their inevitability and the necessity of socialism will be explained. Printed material tends to be used.


By contrast, agitation is the presentation of a single idea to large numbers. Using the same example, the agitator will draw from an example, the death of an unemployed worker to hammer a central point – the inhumanity of the gap between rich and poor, striving to rouse discontent and indignation against the injustice. The spoken word is normally the most effective in this case.


The two methods are complimentary. Propaganda provides more extensive information to back up the emotive call; agitation moves large numbers. Both have a mobilising effect.


Lenin saw the all-Russian party newspaper as providing the basis for consistent, systematic, all-round propaganda and agitation, to reinforce the dispersed, fragmented, individual action, local leaflets and local pamphlets. This was needed because “the revolutionary proletariat … has demonstrated its readiness, not only to listen to and support the summons to political struggle, but boldly to engage in battle. We are now in a position to provide a tribune for the nationwide exposure of the tsarist government, and it is our duty to do this … The Russian working class … displays a constant interest in political knowledge and manifests a constant and extensive demand (not only in periods of intensive unrest) for illegal literature. When such demand is evident; when the training of revolutionary leaders has already begun, and when the concentration of the working class makes it virtual master in the working-class districts of the big cities and in the factory settlements and communities, it is quite feasible for the proletariat to found a political newspaper.”


The newspaper was only one method by which the Bolsheviks pursued their agitation and propaganda however. Another arena of “tremendous importance” was organising in trade unions.



Working Class Strata


It is a principle of dialectical change that there are contradictions in all things. This includes the working class. Marx had made various observations along these lines but it was Lenin who gave systematic attention to the division between advanced and less advanced strata.


Lenin noted in 1899 that “The history of the working-class movement in all countries shows that the better-situated strata of the working class respond to the ideas of socialism more rapidly and more easily… [These] “can win the confidence of the laboring masses, … devote themselves entirely to the education and organisation of the proletariat … accept socialism consciously, and … even elaborate independent socialist theories.” (Lenin, 1899, pp. 280-85). He argued that communist agitation and propaganda must be pitched not only at the level of this “working-class intelligentsia” but must seek to raise this level consciously, raising all tactical, political and theoretical problems of the communist movement.


Secondly, “After the numerically small stratum of advanced workers comes the broad stratum of average workers. These workers, too, strive ardently for socialism, participate in workers’ study circles, read socialist newspapers and books, participate in agitation” but fall short of a full grasp of intricate theoretical or practical problems, tending to be absorbed by local practical work, the events of the working class movement and immediate problems of agitation. Lenin argued that while the mass of communist agitation and propaganda will be directed to this strata, the level should not lowered to the average understanding of the strata but should be designed to raise the level of understanding of the strata, to promote advanced workers from the middle. Agitation and propaganda should connect socialism and the political struggle with ever local and narrow question.


Lastly, a backward strata, the mass of workers are likely to find communist agitation and propaganda incomprehensible, even though they may support demonstrations or vote for the communists. This strata is more likely to be both enthused and demoralised, and more subject to reformist sops. Rather than lower the general level of communist a&p to the understanding of this group however, Lenin argued that there must be different forms developed to supplement the general a&p. For example, pamphlets written in popular language, oral agitation, and leaflets on local events, legal educational activities. “Agitation must be individualised, but our tactics, our political activity must be uniform” (Quoting Kautsky).



Mass Line


We noted above that the revolutionary newspaper was only one tactic for carrying out a&p amongst the masses of workers and that the Bolshevik insistence on this was a product of particular circumstances and that work in trade unions was also particularly important to them. Lenin saw work in trade unions as even more important in the advanced capitalist countries:


“If you want to help the "masses" and win the sympathy and support of the "masses", you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the "leaders" (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations -- even the most reactionary -- in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found. The trade unions and the workers' co-operatives (the latter sometimes, at least) are the very organisations in which the masses are to be found.” (Lenin, 1920, pp. 50-56).


The underlying principle being emphasised here is known as the “mass line”; the need to centre agitation and propaganda wherever the masses are to be found, remembering the stratification discussed above. Mao wrote extensively on this point:

“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily "from the masses, to the masses". This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time.” (Mao, 1943, 119-20).



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[i]  Lenin argues that the ideological institutions of capitalism were the primary reason for the dominance of capitalist ideology and that “the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism” (Lenin 1902, pp. 384-87)