Workers Vanguard No. 948

4 December 2009


On the Centrality of Marxist Theory

(Quote of the Week)

In his classic 1902 work, What Is To Be Done?, V.I. Lenin polemicized against the Economist tendency in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, a tendency that limited its agitation to trade-union demands and passively supported bourgeois liberal efforts to reform tsarist absolutism. Against the Economists, who were hostile to Marxism and loosely associated with the reformist current of Eduard Bernstein in Germany, Lenin stressed the centrality of Marxist theory for revolutionaries. Lenin’s emphasis on Marxist theory is particularly important in the present post-Soviet period, which is marked by the ascendancy of deep theoretical, political and social reaction.

Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity. Yet, for Russian Social-Democrats [i.e., socialists] the importance of theory is enhanced by three other circumstances, which are often forgotten: first, by the fact that our Party is only in process of formation, its features are only just becoming defined, and it has as yet far from settled accounts with the other trends of revolutionary thought that threaten to divert the movement from the correct path. On the contrary, precisely the very recent past was marked by a revival of non-Social-Democratic revolutionary trends (an eventuation regarding which Axelrod long ago warned the Economists). Under these circumstances, what at first sight appears to be an “unimportant” error may lead to most deplorable consequences, and only short-sighted people can consider factional disputes and a strict differentiation between shades of opinion inopportune or superfluous....

Secondly, the Social-Democratic movement is in its very essence an international movement. This means, not only that we must combat national chauvinism, but that an incipient movement in a young country can be successful only if it makes use of the experiences of other countries. In order to make use of these experiences it is not enough merely to be acquainted with them, or simply to copy out the latest resolutions. What is required is the ability to treat these experiences critically and to test them independently....

Thirdly, 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 organisational 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.

—V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)