Our Ideology and Theirs

Editorial for issue 41 of Socialist Revolution magazine. Subscribe now to get your copy!

Theory, in reality, comprises the total experience of humanity.

—Leon Trotsky

At our recent congress, the US section of the IMT outlined our perspectives for the class struggle, determined our organizational priorities, and recommitted to the study of Marxist theory. As Engels explained, the struggle for socialism is not only economic and political, but ideological. Theoretical clarity is vital, not only to cut through the fog of the political chaos, economic and social dislocation, and distorted class polarization we are living through, but also to fight against the poison of alien class ideas.

While it is the struggle between classes over the surplus wealth of society that ultimately drives history, ideas animate these processes and feed back on them. The ruling class understands this fully well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t invest trillions in advertising and mass media, including social media. Bourgeois ideology serves to justify the perpetuation of a system based on exploitation and oppression, and its proponents will use any means necessary to divide and confuse the workers, whose vast potential power poses an existential threat to their rule.

While it is the struggle between classes over the surplus wealth of society that ultimately drives history, ideas animate these processes. / Image: Anthony Crider, Flickr

Without clarity in ideas you will never achieve clarity in practice. Neither a soaring Gothic Cathedral nor a modern skyscraper could be built without a clear vision of the end goal and how to get there. As Socrates put it, “A disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house.” What gives the revolutionary forces of Bolshevism order and strength is not merely discipline and commitment, but confidence in our guiding principles, the rightness of which is tested and confirmed by the experience of the class struggle itself.

As explained in The Communist Manifesto:

The communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement …

The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.

As part of this continuous process of clarification, Marxists engage with our ideological opponents to sharpen our understanding and raise the political level. In his classic work Anti-Dühring, Engels explained:

Marx and I were pretty well the only people to rescue conscious dialectics from German idealist philosophy and apply it in the materialist conception of nature and history …

My negative criticism [of Dühring’s ideas] became positive, the polemic was transformed into a more or less connected exposition of the dialectical method and of the communist world outlook championed by Marx and myself—an exposition covering a fairly comprehensive range of subjects …

Although this work cannot in any way aim at presenting another system as an alternative to Herr Dühring’s “system,” yet it is to be hoped that the reader will not fail to observe the connection inherent in the various views which I have advanced.

It is precisely “conscious dialectics” and “the materialist conception of nature and history” that we must apply to our study of contemporary society if we are to bring about revolutionary change. / Image: Socialist Revolution

It is precisely “conscious dialectics” and “the materialist conception of nature and history” that we must apply to our study of contemporary society if we are to bring about revolutionary change. This is especially true in the United States—the country par excellence of “common sense” pragmatism. As George Novack, a member of the US SWP, related after meeting Trotsky in Mexico in 1937:

At one point, Trotsky asked about the philosopher John Dewey, who had joined the American committee set up to obtain asylum for him and hear his case.

From there, our discussion glided into the subject of philosophy, in which, he was informed, I had a special interest. We talked about the best ways of studying dialectical materialism, about Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism, and about the theoretical backwardness of American radicalism. Trotsky brought forward the name of Max Eastman, who, in various works, had polemicized against dialectics as a worthless idealist hangover from the Hegelian heritage of Marxism.

He became tense, agitated. “Upon going back to the States,” he urged, “you comrades must at once take up the struggle against [Max] Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism, is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.”

In works such as In Defense of Marxism—aimed primarily at his US comrades—Trotsky outlined the basic ideas of dialectical materialism and debunked the idea that Marxism is a crude form of economic determinism:

On the question as to how the economic “base” determines the political, juridical, philosophical, artistic, and so on “superstructure,” there exists a rich Marxist literature. The opinion that economics presumably determines directly and immediately the creativeness of a composer or even the verdict of a judge represents a hoary caricature of Marxism which the bourgeois professordom of all countries has circulated time out of end to mask their intellectual impotence.

Far from a mechanical, lifeless dogma, he explained that:

Dialectical thinking analyzes all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which “A” ceases to be “A,” a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretization, a richness of content, and flexibility; I would even say “a succulence,” which, to a certain extent, brings them closer to living phenomena.

Compare this confident, vibrant, and dynamic worldview to the theoreticians and high priests of bourgeois society. Prominent among these are the justices of the US Supreme Court. Like the medieval schoolmen—who debated whether several angels can be at the same time in the same place—they dissect the Constitution like holy scripture in their efforts to hold the American bourgeois republic together. They face an impossible challenge since the dramatic development of productive forces, and the changed balance of classes cannot be constrained indefinitely within the limits of that archaic document.

US Supreme Court
The Supreme Court dissects the Constitution like holy scripture in its efforts to hold the American bourgeois republic together. / Image: Kjetil Ree, Wikimedia Commons

In their oath of office, these handpicked lawyers:

Solemnly swear [to] administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and … faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me … under the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Under capitalism, “equal right” and “justice” are mere euphemisms for the rights of property. But a system based on private ownership of the means of production can never guarantee equality of life for all, so there can be no real justice under its aegis. As the writer Anatole France eloquently put it: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

In recent months, the personal ties between some of these multimillionaire justices and billionaires with business before the court have come to light. But this open corruption should shock no one. As defenders of a system driven by money, it is natural that they, too, have money and the good life on their minds. Nor should their many anti-worker rulings come as a surprise, flowing as they do from the interests of big business.

To add insult to injury, these unelected judges serve an average of 16 years—the equivalent of four presidential terms. This is what passes for democracy under capitalism. No wonder a record low 25% of Americans say they are confident in this institution.

Cynical jurists like these, politicians like Biden and Trump, and CEOs like Musk and Zuck are the best this senile system can offer. Lacking confidence in their permanence and future, the sycophants of the unelected and unaccountable ruling class seek to infest humanity with postmodernist pessimism and acceptance of the status quo as the best we can expect.

These ideas can only be countered with the revolutionary optimism that springs from scientific socialism, and mastery of Marxism can only be acquired through dedicated and persistent study. To defeat the imperialist invasion that followed the Russian Revolution, Trotsky formulated the slogan, “Proletarians, to horse!” Today, in this preparatory stage of building the forces of American Bolshevism, we might say instead, “Young workers, to books!”

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