Against Economism

Economism is one of the cornerstones of opportunism. Economism is a most powerful brake on the development of the communist movement.

What is Economism? If we give a brief definition, then economism is the opportunistic adaptation of the goals and tasks of the Communist Party to serve the elements of the economic (trade union, strike) struggle of the working masses.

Economism was theoretically crushed in Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?” But history is an ironic lady, and today the majority of left organizations, despite having emblazoned their banners with the image of Lenin, suffer to a greater or lesser extent from the disease of economism.

Consider briefly the history of economism.

In the environment of Russian social democracy, the trend of economism arose in the 90s of the 19th century, that is, along with the spread of Marxism. Its essence was that the political struggle of the proletarians was allegedly possible only or mainly through the development of the «economic struggle.» It was reverence for the spontaneity, the unconsciousness of the political wishes and demands growing out of the proletarian movement. The main peddlers of Economism were the Mensheviks.

At first, the Mensheviks argued that it was premature to introduce the scientific worldview into the labor movement. Then, they advocated the development of only economic forms of resistance. Finally, they fiercely fought against the “premature” October Revolution, right up to participating in anti-Soviet rebellions during the Civil War. Trotskyism grew out of bankrupt Menshevism. Trotskyism stood on the same economism, but disguised it with ringing «revolutionary» demagoguery about the bureaucracy, which, they say, «also» exploits Soviet workers, as the capitalists once did, and called on the workers to strike against the Soviet regime.

Trotskyism, having suffered a political defeat in the factional struggle during Stalin’s time, turned into a disguised current of thought within the Soviet intelligentsia. Its representatives, by hook or by crook, introduced opportunism, defending such concepts as «socialist money,» «socialist prices,» «socialist law of value,» «socialist market,» etc. Moreover, some party members and professors even sincerely believed that the development of problems of self-financing and «improvement of the pricing mechanism» in the USSR would bring the victory of communism closer. Khrushchev and later Gorbachev were, among other things, the products of the infection of the CPSU with economism.

Thus, one more side of economism is revealed, namely, that communism can be reached by the market way, through the mechanism of perfecting «market levers.»

In the 1990s, when the strike movement in the Russian Federation was on the rise, economism dominated everywhere in workers’ parties and parties with communist names. All the leftists at that time either fought with the riot police at rallies or furiously performed ritual dances around the workers’ strikes. The future activists of «Proriv» acted with merciless criticism of the RKRP (of which the Prorivists were members), the largest extra-parliamentary party, which subordinated all its activities to the service of the strike movement.

But as time passed, young Russian capitalism got on its feet, the era of «Putin’s stability» advanced, and the element of strikes gradually subsided. If in 1997, when the scope of strikes reached its peak, more than 880 thousand workers went on strike; then in 2000, only 30 thousand went on strike; in 2001, 13 thousand; in 2002, 3.9 thousand. The last outbreak of the economic «struggle» occurred in 2004, when 195,000 people went on strike. From 2009 onward, fewer than 1,000 workers went on strike each year.

The strike movement in Russia died out, but economism did not die out; it mutated, taking on a particularly sophisticated form. If before that, economism was typical tailism, now it has become just trade unionism. Now there is a call to devote all forces and means to fomenting the economic «struggle» of the proletariat, because supposedly only after this is it possible for the full-blooded transition of the proletarians to the political struggle. They say, the working masses today are divided, deprived of solidarity, and in order to overcome this «atomization» of the proletarians, it is necessary to create trade unions, and «swing» the population to fight «for their rights.» Here is a typical argument of a modern «economist»:

«The party is born from people who have the need to create a party, and the need arises as a result of practical activity, which is the class struggle.»

The author of the quote understands the class struggle as a “struggle” for wages, working conditions, and rights. They say that the proletarians now do not feel the need for a party, therefore they, the opportunist «economists,» cannot do anything. They really, terribly, badly want to create a party, to launch a broad political struggle, but—an insurmountable obstacle! — the masses do not feel the need! And here, as Filatov’s character said: “Somehow when I dare / Against the masses!” Therefore, we must wait until the masses «ripen.» And the best assistant in this matter is the trade union, and not just a simple one, but a «militant» one! And the more «militant» trade unions can be equipped, the faster the masses will «ripen»!
Back in 2010, when the element of strikes had already subsided, V. Podguzov ridiculed the “theorists” from the RKRP:

“They are reminiscent of sclerotic old women who, having forgotten the content of the Manifesto, sit on a historical mound and ascertain the absence of facts of “political class consciousness” among modern proletarians. They sit and WAIT for the workers to have an advanced “political class consciousness,” so that they “at least” start the “real economic struggle” themselves. They do not see their fault in the fact that they themselves are not able to introduce political, and even more, scientific, consciousness into the proletarian environment.

<…> It turns out that when the proletariat, figuratively speaking, sits and does nothing, the RKRP-RPK activists must…also sit and do nothing more. But when the proletarians begin, out of desperation and political illiteracy, to do what they do from time to time with cars, shops, and ATMs, then on the outskirts of Paris, then in Chisinau, then in Athens, Bishkek or Osh, only then the propagandists of the RKRP-RPK will come out of their basements and, on the fly, start injecting communist consciousness into the heads of people smashing banks and shops, choking on tear gas. In the meantime, the workers are sitting in the shops of bankrupt enterprises, and propagandists will not turn their tongues to talk to them about the communist program, which guarantees workers work, a reduction in the working day, the disappearance of inflation, and guarantees free apartments, sanatoriums, and education, i.e., full social security for them and their children. No, when the police are not yet beating the workers, at that moment you need to whisper completely idiotic recipes to the proletarian, that privatization will not do them any good, but the only option for now is to survive.”

13 years have passed, and…nothing has changed. The RKRP, driven to the brink by the ideologists of economism, actually dissolved itself; the gray-haired opportunists have sunk into oblivion, but their ideas have been successfully adopted by the left-wing youth, who now rush not to rallies, but to groups in social networks, spreading everywhere the r-revolutionary idea: “go to the workers” and create trade unions!
Out of blatant ignorance, the modern left repeats — literally word for word! — those stupidities that Lenin refuted in his work “What is to be done?” For example, the idea that the element of protests will give rise to a party.

Well, let me quote large excerpts from What Is to Be Done? which will sound — alas! — topical:

“We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among
the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group, but had already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia.”

“…Any subservience to the spontaneity of the mass movement and any degrading of Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade-unionist politics mean preparing the ground for converting the working-class movement into an instrument of bourgeois democracy. The spontaneous working-class movement is by itself able to create (and inevitably does create) only trade-unionism, and working-class trade-unionist politics is precisely working-class bourgeois politics. The fact that the working class participates in the political struggle, and even in the political revolution, does not in itself make its politics Social-Democratic politics.”

“[O]ur task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”

“It is often said that the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism. This is perfectly true in the sense that socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class more profoundly and more correctly than any other theory, and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily, provided, however, this theory does not itself yield to spontaneity, provided it subordinates spontaneity to itself.”

“Everyone agrees that it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class. The question is, how that is to be done and what is required to do it. The economic struggle merely ”impels“ the workers to realise the government’s attitude towards the working class. Consequently, however much we may try to “lend the economic struggle itself a political character”, we shall never be able to develop the political consciousness of the workers (to the level of Social-Democratic political consciousness) by keeping within the framework of the economic struggle, for that framework is too narrow. The Martynov formula has some value for us, not because it illustrates Martynov’s aptitude for confusing things, but because it pointedly expresses the basic error that all the Economists commit, namely, their conviction that it is possible to develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within, so to speak, from their economic struggle, i.e., by making this struggle the exclusive (or, at least, the main) starting-point, by making it the exclusive (or, at least, the main) basis.”

“What concrete, real meaning attaches to Martynov’s words when he sets before Social-Democracy the task of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”? The economic struggle is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour-power, for better living and working conditions. This struggle is necessarily a trade union struggle, because working conditions differ greatly in different trades, and, consequently, the struggle to improve them can only be conducted on the basis of trade organisations (in the Western countries, through trade unions; in Russia, through temporary trade associations and through leaflets, etc.). Lending “the economic struggle itself a political character” means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction of these trade demands, the improvement of working conditions in each separate trade by means of “legislative and administrative measures” (as Martynov puts it on the ensuing page of his article, p. 43). This is precisely what all workers’ trade unions do and always have done. Read the works of the soundly scientific (and “soundly” opportunist) Mr. and Mrs. Webb and you will see that the British trade unions long ago recognised, and have long been carrying out, the task of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”; they have long been fighting for the right to strike, for the removal of all legal hindrances to the co-operative and trade union movements, for laws to protect women and children, for the improvement of labour conditions by means of health and factory legislation, etc.”

“Thus, the pompous phrase about “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”, which sounds so “terrifically” profound and revolutionary, serves as a screen to conceal what is in fact the traditional striving to degrade Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics.”

“Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. For that reason, the reply to the question as to what must be done to bring political knowledge to the workers cannot be merely the answer with which, in the majority of cases, the practical workers, especially those inclined towards Economism, mostly content themselves, namely: “To go among the workers.” To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions.”

I would like to draw attention to these words: «Social-Democrats [Communists] must go to all classes of the population.» Many leftists today are convinced that only “real workers” who use machine tools constitute the «social base» for communist propaganda. No, Ilyich explains to them, propaganda and agitation must be carried out among different classes and strata of the population, not limited to the workers alone, for “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.”

And another quote, to bring it home:

“The demand “to lend the economic struggle itself a political character” most strikingly expresses subservience to spontaneity in the sphere of political activity. Very often the economic struggle spontaneously assumes a political character, that is to say, without the intervention of the “revolutionary bacilli – the intelligentsia”, without the intervention of the class-conscious Social-Democrats [in our case, the Communists]. The economic struggle of the English workers, for instance, also assumed a political character without any intervention on the part of the socialists. The task of the Social-Democrats, however, is not exhausted by political agitation on an economic basis; their task is to convert trade-unionist politics into Social-Democratic political struggle, to utilise the sparks of political consciousness which the economic struggle generates among the workers, for the purpose of raising the workers to the level of Social-Democratic political consciousness. The Martynovs, however, instead of raising and stimulating the spontaneously awakening political consciousness of the workers, bow to spontaneity and repeat over and over ad nauseam, that the economic struggle “Impels” the workers to realise their own lack of political rights. It is unfortunate, gentlemen, that the spontaneously awakening trade-unionist political consciousness does not “impel” you to an understanding of your Social-Democratic tasks.”

So, a communist organization, especially a party, contrary to the mantras of the current «Marxists,» cannot be born from the elements–it is created by progressive intellectuals, regardless of the presence or absence of economic struggle. Further. The task of the communists is to bring Marxist truths into the consciousness of the masses, to unite the spontaneous proletarian movement with science. Here the adherents of economism (without recognizing themselves as such for anything in the world) clutch at straws: “SO THERE IS NO PROLETARIAN MOVEMENT!” they exclaim desperately. “There is nowhere to bring Marxist science!”

Our leftists, referring to individual statements by Lenin about the need to participate in strikes, are guided by the following “logic”: 1) the success of Bolshevism took place against the backdrop of open forms of economic struggle, 2) today the workers do not become Marxists, 3) today the workers do not strike, therefore the conclusion is to by all means «ignite» the economic struggle after which it will be possible to repeat the success of the Bolsheviks.

The opportunists ignore the fact that the economic strike mentioned by V. I. Lenin was a fact of real life at that time. It was born and passed spontaneously without the participation of any political forces. The beginning of the 20th century was a period of spontaneous upsurge of the proletarian movement all over the world, caused by merciless exploitation and the disenfranchised position of the working people. Today the situation is radically different. The bourgeoisie learned the lessons of the socialist revolutions and learned how to effectively «quench» the waves of discontent among the masses with handouts and resignations of politicians. The proletarians themselves are infected with bourgeois-democratic illusions, believing that specific politicians, neighboring nations, etc., are the source of their misfortunes, and seeing nothing shameful in the very institution of wage slavery (“if you work well, the owner will pay well”) or thinking that they will be able to “open their own business” and break into the class of small-medium owners.

The attempts of the left to «ignite» the economic struggle of the workers are meaningless, primarily because the workers themselves do not consider strikes to be beneficial to themselves. At the same time, as soon as they feel the benefit, they immediately organize a strike without any help from the leftists. There are many examples of this both around the world and in Russia.

Funny moment. Our opponents like to accuse us of a contemptuous attitude towards the workers; allegedly the Prorivists consider all workers to be «cattle.» But what sort of attitude do these gentlemen hold towards the workers themselves, if they, in their opinion, are not capable of independently reading the Labor Code or asking a question on a legal website without the help of these “friends of the people”? So, gentlemen worker-philes, do not call the workers idiots. If they decide to go on strike, they will do so without your «help» and without your advice. They’re not infants.

The absence of a strike movement in the Russian Federation is connected not with the “atomization of society,” but with the fact that the proletarians still consider the strategy of opportunism to be more advantageous for themselves. In many respects, this position of the proletarians is connected with the policy of the “welfare state,” which was adopted by the Putin leadership. And no matter how sideways and crooked this policy may look in practice, it fulfills its task, «calming down» the masses.

The thing is that the proletarian is not a born revolutionary; his revolutionary spirit is relative to other classes and strata of bourgeois society. The proletarian is a market subject, a seller of the commodity «labor power.» By themselves, the proletarians are unwilling and unable to wage a struggle against the capitalists, but can only conditionally offer resistance, the essence of which is to increase the value of their commodity (labor power) and improve working conditions.

From the point of view of the methodology of dialectical materialism, STRUGGLE is such a relationship between opposites, in particular between CLASSES, which is accompanied by mutual NEGATION of the opposing sides. If, however, there is no negation of the bourgeois class in the course of the strike, i.e. the very institution of wage-slavery, then here one should speak precisely of the resistance of the proletarians to the tyranny of capital.

It is the struggle that can take shape. I.e., it is not the “collection of forms” that forms in its unity the class struggle of the proletarians, but, on the contrary, the struggle of the proletarians assumes lower and higher forms, depending on the content of the actions of the proletarians. Content is the source of the emergence of forms, and not vice versa.

The economic «struggle» is thus not a stage, but a state of the proletariat. We see its active phase in the form of strikes. The fact that a significant number of workers today have outgrown economism, never taking part in economic strikes, and consider the economic «struggle» to be stupidity that will not solve their problems, is interpreted by the opportunists as «the absence of class consciousness among the masses.»

Podguzov aptly pointed out:

“‘Economic struggle’ is an unjustifiably strong verbal turn adopted for pedagogical reasons to designate a form of proletarian resistance, which is used from time to time by individual, in most cases small, detachments of the proletarian class, but this form has never been and cannot be the struggle of the WHOLE the proletarian class and even the WHOLE national detachment of the proletariat. The expression “kneeling rebellion” best captures the essence of the “economic form of the class struggle”. In other words, the “economic form of the class struggle” is a self-amplifying phrase, a form of moral encouragement for the fact that the proletariat itself somehow reacts to its robbery and humiliation. From a scientific point of view, the expression «economic struggle» is a sparing form of theoretical generalization of the experience of unsuccessful SPONTANEOUS resistance of the proletarian class over the past 200 years.”

The sharpest forms of the economic «struggle» of the proletarians are now in full swing in Europe: in France, Greece, Great Britain. In the latter, the largest strike in the last decade is raging — 700 thousand people take part in it. And what? Never mind. The «grapes of wrath» are ripening, and there was no communism in Western Europe; there is only «Euro-communism,» but even that is so miserable that it is not able to gain the support of striking teachers, doctors and physicians, or even garbage collectors…
A common misconception is that the proletarians acquire skills useful for the political struggle during the strike. Allegedly, by participating in trade unions, workers acquire class consciousness and go through the “school of collective action” necessary for organizing a party. In a word, the economic strike is a stepping stone to the political struggle. This is not true. Those specific skills that the proletarians acquire are the skills of getting wages. The driving forces of the economic strike and the mechanisms of its organization are fundamentally different from those required for the organization of the revolutionary seizure of power. Economic struggle gives rise to only the most primitive forms of workers’ organization, while revolutionary action requires a political organization–a party. And the party is organized without any strikes and without any «striking experience,» on the basis of communist propaganda among the working masses. The workers’ organizations that arise on the basis of economism can contribute to the struggle for communism only if they are under the ideological influence of the communists.

Another widespread myth is that allegedly proletarians, participating in a strike, become more susceptible to communist propaganda. Such cases do happen, but it strongly depends on the specific circumstances and is not a regularity. The effectiveness of propaganda is determined, first of all, by the quality of propaganda, secondly, by the mass of propaganda, and only thirdly, by external circumstances. Therefore, the task of the communists is to provide high-quality and mass propaganda. Because in the present conditions, when there is no party, the emphasis in propaganda should be on quality, not quantity. The ideas of the opportunists that the economic «struggle» revolutionizes the masses are false; in fact, the success of the strikes, as a rule, only strengthens syndicalist sentiments among the workers. A successful general strike revolutionizes a class only if it is led by the Communist Party, in whose strategy the strike is one of the tactical moves.

«Economist» opportunists insist that communists are obliged to participate in the trade union movement. They say, in this way the communists acquire «connection with the masses» and carry out «practice,» without which theory is dead. This is so if real communists, talented propagandists and agitators go to the trade unions, and the trade union masses show sympathy for the cause of communism. But in the main, communication with the masses is established not through trade union fuss, but through party organs and the Marxist press, because the masses follow not individual speakers, slogans and ideas, but organization. If the Communists have a party and there are publications that produce high-quality propaganda materials, then they should participate in the trade union movement, but by no means in the form and not for the purposes that the adherents of economism represent.

As for practice, any revolutionary practice is doomed to degenerate into a reactionary one if its bearers do not actually know the theory of Marxism. Communist practice can only be carried out by one whose knowledge and method of thinking correspond to the objective laws of the development of nature, society and consciousness, who is able to critically assess the compliance of his practice with the requirements of Marxist theory and bring the theory into line with the changed conditions of practice. The dance of the Left around strikes is precisely that–opportunism, and not practice, because it stems from ignorance, and faith in the spontaneous self-organization of the masses. As a matter of fact, the masses themselves cannot produce anything but syndicalism and trade unionism.

The idea of ​​the left that the communists should «awaken» the workers, push them from behind to a saving revolution is naivete, political infantilism. Communists participate in the proletarian economic movement not in order to «help» the hard workers, express solidarity, or gain authority (which must be won, first of all, by scientific competence, the ability to make right decisions), but, firstly, to criticize economism among the workers, bringing science into their minds; secondly, for the purpose of recruiting personnel for the cause of communism. Why among workers? Because, in the final analysis, the workers are the only social group that will not shine in a capitalist society, but at the same time are the most organized. It is possible and necessary to work with a number of other social groups that have no chance of anything, but it is easier with the workers–they are organized into collectives. It is the workers who form the basis of the revolutionary working class.

It is impossible to carry on the political struggle of the working class and at the same time agitate for the economic «struggle.» One excludes the other. When the Bolsheviks announced an all-Russian strike, it was precisely a political act, thus undermining the economic domination of the bourgeoisie, which prepared the conditions for the seizure of power by the working class.

It must be understood that the victory of October marked not only a victory over capitalism, but also over organized economism.

No matter how many proletarians are coaxed with handouts, market anarchy, coupled with imperialist squabbling, will inevitably give rise to a social explosion. It is necessary that at the time of this explosion a party with sufficient personnel potential be ready so that it can not only organize a successful uprising, but also form the composition of a new socialist government, which will begin to dismantle the market economy and establish scientific central planning. That’s what’s most important. And what do «economists» preach? They preach the opposite: no cadres are needed! The workers themselves, in the heat of the trade union struggle, will give birth to a party, put forward leaders and directors, take power themselves and begin to build socialism. The role of the Communists is assigned here as consultants, to whom the workers will supposedly turn periodically to clarify some highly specialized issue!
Well, gentlemen, opportunists have been waiting for 300 years for the trade unions to give birth to something other than anarcho-syndicalism; shall we wait again? Or is it better not to wait, but to follow the victorious path of Bolshevism? I hope it is clear to the reader which way is more correct.
I would like to end the article with the words of Lenin:

“What a large number of Social-Democratic Lomonosovs have appeared among us lately!”observed a comrade one day, having in mind the astonishing propensity of many who are inclined toward Economism to, arrive, “necessarily, by their own understanding”, at great truths (e.g., that the economic struggle stimulates the workers to ponder over their lack of rights) and in doing so to ignore, with the supreme contempt of born geniuses, all that has been produced by the antecedent development of revolutionary thought and of the revolutionary movement.”

R. Ogienko


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