How Marxists Are Formed

The following text is an excerpt from a resolution approved by the 2023 Congress of the US Section of the IMT, the predecessor organization of the Revolutionary Communists of America. It was drafted shortly after major polls by YouGov and the Fraser Institute reported that 39 million Americans view Marxism favorably, and 30 million consider communism the ideal economic system. We are publishing it today in order to help arm the vast ranks of the communist generation with the ideological tools it will need to carry out a revolution in our lifetime.

We take heart in the recognition that history itself is preparing a mass audience for our ideas. But that was also true in previous eras. There is a difference between fertile ground and a genuine bloom. The favorability of Marxism is clearly on the rise, but for our worldview to influence the course of the class struggle, we will need more than a favorable shift in public opinion. Headlines in recent years have asked “when did everyone become a socialist?” But history shows that this phenomenon can take place on an even larger scale. There’s still room—and lots of it—for the radicalization to intensify into something more.

The birth time of Bolshevism at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century provides a vivid illustration. Marxism was not just “on the rise”—it was positively storming the political landscape:

Marxist books were published one after another, Marxist journals and newspapers were founded, nearly everyone became a Marxist, Marxists were flattered, Marxists were courted, and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary, ready sale of Marxist literature.

This description is from Lenin’s 1902 classic, What Is To Be Done? Two years earlier, he had launched the revolutionary paper Iskra with a striking declaration of Marxism’s inexorable rise:

The past few years have been marked by an astonishingly rapid spread of Social-Democratic [Marxist] ideas among our intelligentsia, and meeting this trend in social ideas is an independent movement of the industrial proletariat, which is beginning to unite and struggle against its oppressors, and to strive eagerly towards socialism. Study circles of workers and Social-Democratic intellectuals are springing up everywhere, local agitation leaflets are being widely distributed, the demand for Social-Democratic literature is increasing and is far outstripping the supply, and intensified government persecution is powerless to restrain the movement.

We should appreciate what a turning point this was. Two decades before these words were written, the number of people in Russia who considered themselves Marxists was effectively zero—and fifteen years after Lenin penned these lines, the country was in the hands of the soviets. How did Russia pass from a complete absence of Marxists at the start of the 1880s to a situation where “everyone became a Marxist” by the end of the 1890s?

This is a question that should occupy the mind of every comrade, as we work to accelerate this process in the US today. All the necessary objective conditions for the flourishing of a Marxist tendency in this country are present. But if we are to achieve the full-scale rebirth of Bolshevism on American soil, we must comprehend the full meaning of its founding watchword: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

All the necessary objective conditions for the flourishing of a Marxist tendency in this country are present. / Image: Revolutionary Communists of America

What allowed Marxism to take root in Russia?

When a seed begins to germinate, the first radicle it sends out—the embryonic part of the seedling—is the taproot. It always grows straight downward. Other roots then grow out laterally in all directions, but only after the taproot has provided the plant’s initial anchor in the soil. Achieving depth is the root’s first task. If the taproot decays or is severed, the seedling dies.

The same principle holds true in engineering. The first factor that determines the longevity of a structure is its foundation. It’s also the most time-consuming part of any large scale construction. The tallest skyscraper in the western hemisphere is One World Trade Center in New York City. Its spire soars 1,792 feet into the sky—the height of five football fields. For half of the total time it took to build, the work proceeded below ground level.

During the first four years of its construction, investors and politicians lamented the slow progress of the “hole in the ground” in lower Manhattan. But a building that tall had to be properly embedded. The foundation shoots down 110 feet into the earth like an enormous taproot, anchoring the skyscraper in a footing the size of an underground ten-story building.

The endurance of a Marxist force begins with its political depth. Lenin called Marxist theory “the granite foundation” of Bolshevism. He argued that since the Russian Marxists were confronted by such a monstrous enemy—tsarism was the world bulwark of reaction at that time—nothing less than a cadre organization forged in the most rigorous theoretical training could defeat it:

The national tasks of Russian Social-Democracy are such as have never confronted any other socialist party in the world. We shall have occasion further on to deal with the political and organizational duties which the task of emancipating the whole people from the yoke of autocracy imposes upon us. At this point, we wish to state only that the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory (Lenin’s emphasis).

If the overthrow of tsarism demanded fighters armed with “the most advanced theory,” what does the overthrow of US imperialism demand? What will it take to see the day when the red flag is hoisted atop One World Trade Center and the rest of the Manhattan skyline? The cadres of American Bolshevism, more than anywhere else, must fight to dig downward, against all obstacles, to lay the sturdiest, most unyielding foundation of any party in history. Only on that basis can we ensure that our upward ascent will be on a solid footing.

What allowed Russian Marxism to take root, in the first place, was the ideological grounding of its pioneers. The Emancipation of Labor Group, the first Russian organization of its kind, was formed by Georgi Plekhanov in 1883. Beginning with just five comrades, the odds were stacked against this minuscule voice in the wilderness, with no supporters, resources, or visibility. Given the complete isolation of this tiny group—an invisible fringe advocating an outlook that was utterly unknown in that country—some might assume that their starting point would have been to simplify their message in order to popularize their ideas. They did the opposite.

Rather than watering down the ideas or compressing them into an introduction for beginners, Plekhanov’s early texts dug straight down to the philosophical and historical roots of Marxism. His aim was to reveal the profundity and richness of Marxist philosophy. In his 1883 text, Socialism and the Political Struggle, he expounded scientific socialism as “the teaching which first really explained the whole course of human cultural development,” and proceeded to lay out a sweeping account of that process, explaining in detail how Marxism arose, and how its outlook and methods contrasted to the other philosophical currents of the time.

His writings on historical materialism traced the genealogy of Marx’s “contemporary materialism” out of the whole history of philosophy to reveal its logical thread in the evolution of human thought. Years later, Lenin remarked that Plekhanov’s most famous book, On the Development of the Monist View of History, “helped educate a whole generation of Russian Marxists.”

Plekhanov himself recognized that these dense writings made for challenging reading:

With all our hearts, we seek to work for the creation of a literature which is accessible to the understanding of the whole peasant-worker masses; we, nevertheless, are obliged for the time being to confine our popular literary efforts to the narrow circle of more or less “intellectual” leaders of the working class.

His initial audience was restricted to the relative few who were willing and able to sit down and work through the text to comprehend the ideas on the page. But in return for their efforts, those select readers were rewarded with an awe-inspiring glimpse of a more advanced worldview. It was an eye-opening experience that ignited a chain reaction in Russia. A surge of inspiration propelled those texts from hand to hand. The books made their way throughout the movement, beginning with the most thoughtful layers. The seeds fell on fertile soil. Before long, the ideas of Marxism had sprouted a dedicated army of new supporters, who made it their life mission to energetically carry this worldview into the arena of the class struggle.

Although Plekhanov subsequently found himself in the camp of Menshevism, Lenin always recognized the role played by the “Father of Russian Marxism” in laying the foundation: “Plekhanov’s services to our movement were immense. During the twenty years between 1883 and 1903 he wrote a large number of splendid essays.” After the Revolution, Lenin had Plekhanov’s theoretical writings republished, as recommended reading for the next generation of Communists, despite his somewhat rigid style and eventual betrayal.

It is in Plekhanov’s earliest text from 1883, Socialism and the Political Struggle, that we first encounter a familiar theme—one that Lenin would borrow and expand on nearly two decades later:

For without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement in the true sense of the word. Any class which strives for its emancipation, any political party which aims at dominance, is revolutionary only insofar as it represents the most progressive social trends and consequently is a vehicle of the most progressive ideas of its time. An idea which is inherently revolutionary is a kind of dynamite which no other explosive in the world can replace.

Marxism exploded onto the political scene because the irresistible power of its depth gripped the minds of an initial layer of cadres. Those cadres went on to form the skeleton of a much larger phenomenon. Before Marxism could fully bloom, it had to sink firm roots. This is our task today. The strength of tomorrow’s movement will be measured by today’s foundation—by the level of our comrades’ political education; by the degree to which these ideas become part of our flesh and blood; and by our ability to transmit into the 2020s the same fervent enthusiasm as our forerunners in the 1890s.

Marxism exploded onto the political scene because the irresistible power of its depth gripped the minds of an initial cadre who went on to form the skeleton of a much larger phenomenon. / Image: public domain

How Marxism was born

Any student of Marxism can attest to the experience of intense inspiration that flashes through the mind when we capture our first glimpse of the brilliant depth of these ideas. The impact can be exhilarating. If the step of actively joining the movement marks a milestone in the development of any Marxist, the first encounter with the “mind-blowing” force of these ideas marks another stage of the process—and leaves you wanting more.

These moments are an inevitable part of the learning process, because the breadth and richness of materialist dialectics is too vast to be absorbed at once. It sinks in over time, and sharpens over the course of years. But there are also moments when a sudden insight can light up the mind with a surprising new connection. The sensation of taking a cognitive step forward, what Trotsky once called “the joy of creative perception,” is deeply rewarding for the brain. It can even be life changing. Anyone who has felt this sensation can only marvel at the fact these ideas once flashed through human minds for the very first time, in the summer of 1844.

The lifelong intellectual partnership of Marx and Engels began when Marx was 26 years old and Engels was about to turn 24. Both were exceptionally brilliant youth whose formation in the fertile environment of German philosophical circles, passing through the Young Hegelian school, left them with a sweeping command of the history of philosophy. Both young men found themselves sent away from Germany, and not on their own terms. Marx moved to Paris to evade the threats and censorship of the Prussian government, which had shut down his first publication, the Rheinische Zeitung. Engels was pulled out of high school by his father at age 16 to learn the family business. After a year of military service in Berlin, where he mingled with Young Hegelians, he moved to Manchester, England, at age 22, where he reluctantly worked as a clerk at a cotton mill owned by his father.

Without knowing it, both thinkers had moved to new environments that would broaden their horizons and bring them a step closer to synthesizing the highest product of human thought yet achieved. It was in the land of Marat, Robespierre, and Danton that Marx breathed in the spirit of the French Revolution—an intense study of which brought him face to face with the power of the class struggle as the engine of history. And when Marx plunged into a topic, he did it with all his soul.

He would go three and even four nights without sleep, straining himself to the point of illness. His editor, waiting impatiently for promised article drafts, complained that Marx was “reading a tremendous amount and working with unusual intensity,” but that he “finished nothing, broke off his work constantly and plunged again and again into an endless sea of books.” His study of the French Revolution took him back to the materialism of the Enlightenment, from Descartes and Locke, to Helvetius and Holbach. He was approaching a breakthrough.

While Marx was in Paris plowing through the terrain of French materialism, 375 miles northwest in Manchester, his future lifelong collaborator was on an insatiable quest of his own. Though Engels resented his “beastly” occupation as a textiles manufacturer, it offered him a direct view of the roaring industrial revolution and the hell on earth it meant for the modern proletariat, forced to “breathe in more coal fumes and dust than oxygen.” He combined his observations of British industry with a deep plunge into bourgeois political economy. He devoured Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean Baptiste Say, and James Mill, before passing onto the utopian socialist literature of Saint Simon, Fourier, Owen, Babeuf, and Proudhon. His personal evolution toward communism, like Marx’s, was accelerating.

The two paths led to the same conclusion. Through their contributions to the radical press of the time—after the Rheinische Zeitung was closed down, Marx had helped found the Paris-based Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher—both men soon realized they had stumbled upon a common thread. Although they had met briefly in 1842, it wasn’t until the spring of 1844 that Marx entered into correspondence with Engels, inspired by his “brilliant sketch,” on private property as the source of the contradictions of bourgeois economics. The article, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” was honing in on the new materialist viewpoint they were both obsessively pursuing.

Toward the end of August, Engels was traveling from Manchester back to Germany and stopped in Paris to visit Marx. The two met, for the first time as cothinkers, at the Café de la Régence on the Place du Palais, where Diderot and Rousseau first met a century earlier. The excitement of that meeting extended into the next ten days, the two enthralled in a discussion that, in the words of Engels, led them to “reach complete agreement on all theoretical matters.” The friendship was cemented in a revolutionary achievement of historic proportions. The two minds joined forces and the road to humanity’s communist destiny—the unbroken thread of scientific socialism—began to unfold. The cognitive step they had taken would prepare the most consequential leap of all—the emancipation of our species from class bondage.

The friendship between Marx and Engels was cemented in a revolutionary achievement of historic proportions. / Image: public domain

The brilliant germ of the new world outlook

The ideas of Marxism are the fruit of thousands of years of human thought. Materialism and dialectics have roots that stretch back to ancient Greece. “The old Greek philosophers,” Engels said, “were all born natural dialecticians.” The earliest of them, the Ionians, starting out from a Promethean rejection of the gods, were materialists who sought an explanation of nature in nature’s terms. Marx’s doctoral thesis took up the natural philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus, the former of whom, in the 5th century BC, had already anticipated the basis of modern atomic theory.

The ingenious insights of the classical Greeks, preserved mainly in the Arab world during the long “hibernation” of the Christian Middle Ages, were seized by the rising bourgeoisie in its progressive period of ascent. The materialism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was a revolutionary weapon in the fight against decaying feudalism. The “Age of Reason” culminated in the French Revolution and in the philosophical outlook it inspired, the dialectics of Hegel. An encyclopedic thinker who surveyed all the currents of thought that came before him, Hegel approached history as an unending process of development from lower to higher, driven by an underlying logic and unfolding in a definite direction.

The genius of Marx and Engels was to explain the material roots of that process—the development of the productive forces—thereby revealing the motor force and direction of history. Their Olympian achievement was to tie together the ancient strands of materialism and dialectics for the first time into a consistent and cohesive worldview. By this act, they gave the first conscious expression to a process that had been unfolding—groping forward unrecognized until that moment—since the dawn of human history. The materialist conception of history was born.

Marx and Engels were contemporaries of Charles Darwin, whose discovery had the earth-shattering result of bringing humanity face to face with its real place in nature. While the Ionian Greeks had anticipated the idea of evolution—Anaximander hypothesized that humans evolved from fish as early as the 6th century BC—Darwin’s theory of natural selection revealed the mechanism that allowed one species to give rise to another. The religious pedestal that exalted humanity as a divine creation apart from the rest of the animal kingdom was brought tumbling down. In turn, Darwin placed our species on an even higher plane, at the self-conscious pinnacle of a process far more wondrous than any creation myth—the three-and-a-half-billion-year march from single-celled organisms into the vast complexity of life we know today.

Marx and Engels achieved in human history what Darwin achieved in biology. By applying a materialist lens more consistently than any previous school of thought, they revealed the forward march of the productive forces as the driver of all human progress. For thousands of years after the rise of classes and the state, various bloody iterations of exploiter and exploited gave rise to the growth of science, technique, division of labor, and productivity. The emergence and development of class society has prepared humanity to finally bring these forces under its conscious control. Instead of organizing economic activity at the service of the blind laws of capital accumulation, the world’s immense productive power will finally be harnessed in the service of conscious human aims.

Both Marx and Darwin made epochal discoveries. Each produced a forward leap in human thought that lifted our gaze up from the ground beneath our feet to a view of the path our species had been treading, both on the evolutionary timescale and on the scale of civilization. But unlike Darwin’s, Marx’s discovery was revolutionary in the full sense of the word. It not only provided a grand hindsight that shed light on the vast unconscious process that brought us to this point. By revealing the underlying laws of class society—Marx showed how class rule itself could be superseded.

The bourgeois revolutions that brought down feudalism justified the ascent of a new class to power by substituting “the natural rights of man” for the divine right of kings. “We know today,” Engels explained, “that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.” Instead of placing human reason in the historical driver’s seat, another blind, unthinking force took the wheel—the accumulation of capital. Servitude before profits and markets replaced subjugation by lords and kings. What the bourgeois had portrayed as new freedoms turned out to be rhetorical cover for the dictatorship of capital.

Marx pulled this blinding veil off history, exposed the true nature of bourgeois rule, and revealed the social force destined to end it: the proletariat. When the bourgeoisie came to power it was not conscious of the forces it was releasing. “What earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?” By contrast, Marxism comprehends the staggering potential waiting to be unleashed once the suffocating straitjacket of private property and the nation state is destroyed. By liberating the productive forces, harnessing their full power through a deliberate, rational plan, our species will resume its earlier state—freedom from all class divisions—but on a higher level, on the basis of superabundance instead of scarcity.

During the epoch of the bourgeois revolution—the last time humanity stood at the transitional threshold from one mode of production to the next one—this step was wrapped in an illusion. The revolutionaries knew they were giving a forward push to the wheel of history, but it was a limited awareness, restricted by the narrow class outlook of a new ascending minority. We now stand at the other end of capitalism’s lifespan, and our species once again faces a historic threshold. However, the revolutionary step across this frontier, unlike the last one, leads to the end of class rule itself. To truly be a Marxist is to live with the awareness of that threshold, to perceive it with open eyes, to put your shoulder to the wheel of history, and to press forward with all your might.

By revealing the underlying laws of class society—Marx showed how class rule itself could be superseded. / Image: Revolutionary Communists of America

The fight to acquire ideas

The immensity of Marxism cannot be adequately conveyed in a document like this. The weight of the ideas cannot be boiled down to a brief sketch of its conclusions, any more than the earthshaking spirit of Beethoven’s symphonies can be shortened into a 30-second clip of “highlights.” A genuine appreciation of the Marxist worldview and what it can bring into our field of vision can only be acquired by delving patiently and persistently into the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky for ourselves. Over time, we begin to assimilate the method that runs through them, linking their thought into a single integral outlook.

It goes without saying that the ideas at the apex of the history of philosophy are not conquered overnight. But they can be conquered, given a serious commitment. None of the great Marxist thinkers were born with these views—they all exerted colossal efforts to raise themselves to the heights they achieved. The fight to acquire these ideas must be approached as a ferocious and conscious struggle to educate ourselves, with a determination to overcome all obstacles in our way.

The first country where Marxism became a mass phenomenon with adherents numbering in the millions was Germany. This was not merely due to the national origin of the founders of scientific socialism. Rather, as Engels observed, it was because the German working class had a key advantage over workers in the rest of the world—their habit of thinking theoretically.

First, they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe; and they have retained that sense of theory which the so-called “educated” classes of Germany have almost completely lost. Without German philosophy, which preceded it, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism—the only scientific socialism that has ever existed—would never have come into being. Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case. What an immeasurable advantage this is may be seen, on the one hand, from the indifference towards all theory, which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organization of the individual unions.

In contrast to the intellectual traditions of German-speaking countries at that time, Britain was the birthplace of empiricism. Engels explained that Francis Bacon and John Locke ushered in the “narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century”:

To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. His communication is “yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” For him, a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis, one to the other.

In a word, this is the practical “common sense” reasoning that underlies the psyche of the Anglophone world to this day. It’s an impatient “yes-or-no” outlook averse to theoretical generalizations, and to dialectical thought in particular. When it was transferred from Britain to the US, it gave rise to the tradition of “pragmatism,” further emphasizing immediate practical results—don’t bother with theoretical abstractions, just get the job done! We don’t have to look far to see the imprint of this mentality on the left today, in its aversion to Bolshevism and cadre building: “Okay, but what are you doing? What can you show for it? Have you won any elections?”

This impatience is an obstacle that works against the task of laying a granite foundation for a genuine revolutionary movement. It’s part of the American temperament that we must be aware of in order to overcome. In his discussions with the SWP in the 1930s, Trotsky insisted that there was nothing more important than educating the American comrades in dialectical materialism: “Pragmatism, empiricism, is the curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.”

A few years later, during the 1939–40 factional struggle in the SWP, Trotsky seized the opportunity to raise the political level of the American comrades. He directed an appeal to the party youth to “attempt to imbed in their minds a serious theoretical foundation for revolutionary struggle” and called on them to study.

Beware of the infiltration of bourgeois skepticism into your ranks. Remember that socialism to this day has not found higher scientific expression than Marxism. Bear in mind that the method of scientific socialism is dialectical materialism. Occupy yourselves with serious study! Study Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, and Franz Mehring.

Even in theoretically minded Germany, Engels advised the leaders of the growing socialist movement to take a serious approach to studying the ideas—as a counterforce against the dominant habits of bourgeois thought and public opinion.

In particular, it will be the duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer insight into all theoretical questions, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old world outlook, and constantly to keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, i.e., that it be studied.

To see the world through a Marxist lens is to think differently from the dominant mode of thinking. Alien class ideas are the default in this society. To cut through and see beyond the pervasive bourgeois ideology that surrounds us doesn’t happen automatically—it takes hard work.

Moreover, our world outlook is an integral and consistent one. The academics masquerading as “Marxists” in the universities treat theory like a fashionable piece of eyewear that can be exchanged at will for a “feminist lens,” an “postcolonial lens,” or a “queer theory lens.” We must reject the eclectic, petty-bourgeois caricature of Marxism, and as Trotsky advised, learn to think.

Even in theoretically minded Germany, Engels advised a serious approach to studying Marxism—as a counterforce against bourgeois thought and public opinion. / Image: Revolutionary Communists of America

How the Bolsheviks studied Marx

In My Life, Trotsky describes the single-minded efforts he put in over many years to conquer Marxism, starting when he was 16 years old.

Burning with impatience I tried to grasp the ideas instinctively, but they were not so easy to master. I found no one about me to offer sure guidance. Every new conversation, moreover, forced me to come to the bitter, painful and desperate conclusion that I was ignorant … I swallowed books, fearful that my entire life would not be long enough to prepare me for action. My reading was nervous, impatient and unsystematic.

Six years later, having gone through the experience of tsarist prisons and Siberian exile, Trotsky again related the internal impatience that drove him to learn. His intellectual appetite was stimulated by his first emigration to London in 1902, where he lived and worked in close proximity to Lenin, Plekhanov, and the rest of the Iskra editorial board. Still, his progress took effort.

I took to studying the published issues of Iskra, and the review of Zarya, which came from the same offices. These were brilliant periodicals, combining scientific profundity with revolutionary passion. I actually fell in love with Iskra, and was so ashamed of my ignorance that I strained every nerve in my effort to overcome it. Soon I began to write for Iskra. At first it was only short notes, but a little later I wrote political articles and even editorials.

In 1923, five years after the revolution, Trotsky looked back on the process of his own mental “primitive accumulation” from a perspective of political maturity. His famous advice to the youth was “don’t spread yourself too thin.”

​​Even in prison, when I did nothing but read, it seemed that one couldn’t get enough done in a day. In the ideological sphere, just as in the economic arena, the phase of primitive accumulation is the most difficult and troublesome. And only after certain basic elements of knowledge and particularly elements of theoretical skill (method) have been precisely mastered and have become, so to speak, part of the flesh and blood of one’s intellectual activity, does it become easier to keep up with the literature not only in areas one is familiar with, but in adjacent and even more remote fields of knowledge, because method, in the final analysis, is universal.

Trotsky was not alone in approaching his self-education as an insatiable driving force throughout his life. In his unfinished biography of Lenin, he described the intensity and the delight with which the latter “climbed the rungs” of Marxism, assimilating the method.

Joyously and fervently Vladimir advanced along this difficult road, summarizing each chapter, sometimes a single page, as he read and thought and verified the logical structure, the dialectical transitions, the terminology … To follow the development of Marx’s thought, to feel its irresistible power, to discover deductions from incidental phrases or remarks, to renew each time his conviction of the truth and profundity of Marx’s sarcasm and to bow down with gratitude before this relentless genius—this became for Vladimir not only a necessity but a joy. Marx never had a more attentive reader or one in closer harmony with him, nor did Marx have a better, more perceptive and grateful disciple.

Far from treating theory as an intellectual pastime or a mental toy, Lenin saw it as a guide to action. Krupskaya describes Lenin’s constant habit of “consulting” with Marx:

At the most difficult turning points of the revolution, he once again turned to the reading of Marx. Sometimes when you went into his room, when everyone around was excited, Lenin was reading Marx and could hardly tear himself away. It was not to quieten his nerves, not to arm himself with belief in the power of the working class, belief in its ultimate victory. Lenin had sufficient of this faith. He buried himself in Marx so as to “consult” with Marx, to find a reply from him to the burning questions of the workers’ movement.

The whole-hearted plunge into the depths of Marxist theory was by no means confined to the great theoreticians. “Every working-class party,” Trotsky explained, “… during its initial stages, passes through a period of pure propaganda, i.e., the training of its cadres.” The ranks of worker Bolsheviks who made the victory of October 1917 possible—the general staff of the insurrection—were ordinary factory workers, students, and youth. Through tremendous sacrifices, they raised themselves up to the height of revolutionary Marxists.

Plekhanov gave the following description of the average worker who passed through the “revolutionary academy” of the underground study circles in the 1890s:

After working at the factory 10–11 hours a day, and returning home only in the evening, he would sit at his books until 1 o’clock at night … I was struck by the variety and abundance of the theoretical questions which concerned him … Political economy, chemistry, social questions, and the theory of Darwin all occupied his attention … It would have taken decades for him to assuage his intellectual thirst.

Under conditions of extreme repression, cultural backwardness, and isolation, the early cadres of Bolshevism managed to educate themselves in Marxist theory. Our forerunners risked everything to smuggle copies of the Communist Manifesto and other Marxist texts into the interior of Russia. Worker activists would share the precious material page by page, reading and discussing secretly, by candlelight, after grueling shifts in industrial plants. This is the type of political determination that forged the foundation of Bolshevism.

A candid internal report by a tsarist police director in 1913 describes the impact of the Bolshevik cadres, four years before they came to power:

During the past ten years, the most energetic, courageous element, capable of tireless struggle, resistance and constant organization, have been the organizations and persons concentrating around Lenin … The faction of Leninists is always better organized than the others, stronger in its singleness of purpose, more resourceful in propagating its ideas among the workers … The Bolshevik circles, nuclei and organizations are now scattered through all the cities. Permanent correspondence and contacts have been established with almost all the factory centers … In view of the aforesaid, there is nothing surprising in the fact that at the present time the assembling of the entire underground Party is proceeding around the Bolshevik organizations and that indeed the latter really are the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party.

There was no mystery to the Bolsheviks’ success. The “secret weapon” that allowed them to overcome so many obstacles was the remarkable clarity of their ideas, sharpened over years of study, discussion, debate, along with experience in the movement. If our comrades take the necessary steps to conquer the ideas, we will be able to make this kind of impact on the US political landscape in the 2020s.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!