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Standing on the shoulders of giants
“We stand in the Marxist tradition, founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and continued by V.I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
This statement is by no means meant to imply that the five socialists listed are the only important Marxists in the movement’s history—or that we elevate the role of individuals over and above that of the collective struggles of ordinary workers and oppressed people.
On the contrary, every important theoretical advance in the Marxist movement has been based upon developments in the class struggle, and for every great Marxist, there are thousands of lesser-known, if not completely unknown, organizers, theorists and leaders who have made an indelible mark. However, Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky have, to date, made some of the most important theoretical and practical contributions to the socialist tradition.
Socialism from below
These names can be considered shorthand for the most important historical trends in the development of the socialist movement—from its beginnings with the First International Workingmen’s Association in the second half of the 19th century; the Second International that followed it, during which mass socialist parties first developed; then, the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the creation of the Third (Communist) International in the early 1920s; and finally, the period of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Fourth International, through which Trotsky and his followers upheld the genuine Marxist tradition.
Marx and Engels were the first to put socialism on a scientific footing, rooting it in the material conditions and contradictions of capitalism itself, whereas previous socialists had spun socialist utopias out of their own heads. Marx was the first to systematically analyze the character of the capitalist economy, its tendency to periodic crises of overproduction, and to describe the historical conditions that made socialism a real possibility.
Together, they established that socialism was “the self-emancipation of the working class”—that is, true liberation from class society and inequality could come not through the enlightened actions of individuals or small minorities, but only through the mass activity of the majority of exploited. Marx and Engels showed that revolution was necessary not only to sweep aside the old order, but because only through revolution could the majority of people throw off their deference to authority and become “fit to rule” in their own name.
Lenin, in theory and in practice, was the first Marxist to develop the organizational framework—a party of the working class consisting of its most class-conscious fighters—through which the liberation of the working class could be fulfilled. He restored Marx’s theory of the state—that it is a product of class antagonism and will disappear when classes are abolished—and he helped formulate an understanding of the relationship between the international struggle for socialism and struggles for national liberation against imperialism.
Rosa Luxemburg upheld the necessity of revolutionary change when leaders of the Second International were turning socialist parties into vehicles of gradualist reformism. She also developed the theory of the mass strike as a central component in the revolutionary process.
In addition to being perhaps the most important leader of the Russian Revolution after Lenin, Trotsky was the founder of the theory of permanent revolution, which rejected the mechanical schematism of social democracy and placed the working class at the heart of all radical social revolutions and movements.
Perhaps more importantly, without Trotsky’s fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy and his analysis of it as a product of the isolation and backwardness of Russia rather than the “original sin” of Leninism, the small but important shoots of genuine socialism upon which a new movement can be erected would not exist today. Through Trotsky, the international character of socialism (the impossibility of socialism in one country) and the centrality of the working class in the fight for socialism were upheld.
What Marxism isn’t
Important in understanding Marxism is understanding what it is not. Distortion upon lie upon distortion have been piled so high that genuine Marxism is now buried underneath a pile of rubbish. There are now so many people with diametrically opposed ideas who nevertheless claim to be Marxists that the term has become almost meaningless.
So, for example, Engels looked at the Paris Commune of 1871, where the government consisted of directly elected, instantly recallable delegates paid no more than a workers’ wage, and called it a workers’ government. Joseph Stalin identified the top-down, one-party bureaucratic monolith he established in Russia in the 1930s as a workers’ government.
Both cannot be right. Put starkly, the question is this: Is Marxism the liberation of humanity from class and national oppression, from state tyranny and from want; or is it the gulag, rationing, slave labor camps and an ubiquitous secret police?
Of course, in order to discredit Marxism, there are defenders of capitalism who would say that the one led to the other—that all revolutions lead to tyranny. But there are many instances in history where ideas have been twisted and distorted to disguise entirely different realities or practices. After all, both Tom Paine—a true democrat who fought against kings and privilege—and George W. Bush profess to be advocates of democracy and freedom.
There is a yawning gulf between Marxism as a set of ideas about how to fight and win a better society (i.e., as a guide to action), and the pseudo-Marxist state ideologies of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, which were used to paper over inequality and justify societies that were still driven by exploitation and oppression.
In the early 1920s, Lenin warned in a debate on nationalism that it was important for socialists not to paint national movements in “communist colors.” With the rise of Stalinism and the contortion of Marxism into an ideology of state-led development rather than working-class liberation, this is precisely what happened.
A whole series of national revolutions developed that challenged colonial domination in the name of socialism, but which established new states modeled on the Soviet Union—a society where workers had lost power by the end of the 1920s.
In his pamphlet Principles of Communism, which preceded the Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels describes communism as “the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat”—or in more modern terms, the working class. Marx and Engels therefore rejected all “socialisms” or radical politics that advocated the substitution of some other individual, group or class for the self-activity of the working class.
“For almost 40 years,” Marx and Engels wrote, “we have emphasized that the class struggle is the immediate motive force of history and, in particular, that the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is the great lever of modern social revolution; hence we cannot possibly cooperate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement.
“At the founding of the International, we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot cooperate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes.”
Hence socialism is not a movement of social legislation; nor is it a movement in which a few hundred or even several thousand armed guerrillas liberate the masses on their behalf, while the masses play either a purely passive or merely supportive role; and it most emphatically is not the work of great leaders acting as conductors, waving their batons.
The real Marxist tradition rejects the identification of socialism with the actions of small minorities, with the establishment of one-party state bureaucracies, or with the gradualist approach that asks the working class to put its faith in elected officials and in congresses and parliaments. Ordinary people must themselves organize and fight, creating their own institutions of struggle and of governance.
As Marx and Engels wrote, “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”