David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

What is objectivism?

If you were honest in your polemics, and with yourselves, you would acknowledge that your attack on our alleged abandonment of dialectics and the fight against pragmatism is a subterfuge. The real issue is that you do not agree with the International Committee’s insistence that the fight for socialism requires the development, within the working class, of both a profound knowledge of history—particularly that of the socialist movement itself—and the most precise and concrete understanding possible (by means of ever more exact conceptual approximations) of the objective movement of the world capitalist system in all its complex, contradictory and interconnected forms. What you refer to falsely as “objectivism,” is the Marxist striving to accurately reflect in subjective thought the law-governed movement of the objective world, of which social man is a part, and to make this knowledge and understanding the basis of revolutionary practice. For all your talk about “dialectics” and the “fight against pragmatism,” everything you write demonstrates indifference to the requirements of developing a working class movement whose practice is informed by Marxist theory.

Your usage of the word “objectivism” is incorrect, and reflects a basic disagreement with materialism. For Marxists, objectivism denotes a one-sided and abstract approach to the study of social phenomena, which excludes all consideration of the activity of the conscious forces—that is, social classes and related political tendencies—that are critical elements in the objective process itself. As Lenin explained in his classic explanation of the difference between Marxism and objectivism:

The objectivist speaks of the necessity of a given historical process; the materialist gives an exact picture of the given social-economic formation and of the antagonistic relations to which it gives rise. When demonstrating the necessity for a given series of facts, the objectivist always runs the risk of becoming an apologist for these facts: the materialist discloses the class contradictions and in so doing defines his standpoint. The objectivist speaks of “insurmountable historical tendencies”; the materialist speaks of the class which “directs” the given economic system, giving rise to such and such forms of counteraction by other classes. Thus, on the one hand, the materialist is more consistent than the objectivist, and gives profounder and fuller effect to his objectivism. He does not limit himself to speaking of the necessity of a process, but ascertains exactly what social-economic formation gives the process its content, exactly what class determines this necessity. In the present case, for example, the materialist would not content himself with stating the “insurmountable historical tendencies,” but would point to the existence of certain classes, which determine the content of a given system and preclude the possibility of any solution except by the action of the producers themselves. On the other hand, materialism includes partisanship, so to speak, and enjoins the direct and open adoption of the standpoint of a definite social group in any assessment of events. [14]

Lenin does not use the term “objectivism” as an epithet directed against those who study the socioeconomic processes that constitute the basis of revolutionary practice. Rather, he strives to impart a richer, more profoundly materialist content to the study of the objective world by demanding that it identify the class dynamics of any given social situation, and, on that basis, define as precisely as possible the political tasks of the revolutionary party. Lenin’s vast theoretical output was principally characterized by his unrelenting determination to ground the perspective, program and activity of the Russian workers movement in a precise and comprehensive understanding of objective reality. As you fling about the word “objectivism,” one can only wonder how you would classify such crucial works of Lenin as The Economic Content of Narodism, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, and various substantial studies, spanning several volumes, that he produced on the agrarian question in Russia (Lenin considered this to be an area in which he had developed a particular expertise).

The immense importance Lenin attributed to the cognition of objective social reality is clearly expressed in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism:

The fact that you live and conduct your business, beget children, produce products and exchange them, gives rise to an objectively necessary chain of events, a chain of development, which is independent of your social consciousness, and is never grasped by the latter completely. The highest task of humanity is to comprehend this objective logic of economic evolution (the evolution of social life) in its general and fundamental features, so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness and the consciousness of the advanced classes of all capitalist countries in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible. [15]

You tell us that “Marxist science is not a science in the conventional sense: its aim is not only to understand the world but also to transform it.” But to what extent, Comrades Steiner and Brenner, is the revolutionary, i.e., historically progressive, transformation of the world dependent upon a correct understanding of it? You need to think much more carefully about the answer you give to this question. Whether you call it “conventional” or “unconventional,” Marxism can be considered a science only to the extent that the goal of its world-transforming practice—ending capitalist exploitation and establishing a socialist society—is based on a correct understanding of the laws of social development, rather than a mere desire for change, let alone a “will to power.” In Marxism, the means by which revolutionists seek to transform the world are rooted in, and inseparable from, their understanding of the objective laws that govern the movement of society. This is a critical codicil of Marxist theory, which cannot be violated without inviting political catastrophe and, I must add, moral shipwreck.

You write in the most haughtily abstract manner of the need for a struggle against pragmatism, but seem wholly unaware that it spawned numerous tendencies in the twentieth century that sought to dissolve—through an extreme glorification of the transformative capacities of human practice—the essential ontological distinction, upon which dialectical materialism insists, between the objective world and the forms of its reflection in subjective consciousness. From the recognition that the world in which man lives is acted upon and changed by human activity, certain pragmatic tendencies proclaimed it philosophically absurd to speak of an objective reality, existing independently of man, that places limits on man’s activity. Thus, from the absence of an absolute separation between object and subject, they deduced the non-existence of even a relative separation. The subjective premises of James’ pragmatism were developed in this extreme form by F.C.J. Schiller, Henri Bergson, Georges Sorel, and the Italians Giuseppe Prezzolini and Giovanni Pappini. The latter are particularly significant, inasmuch as the politically fascistic implications of the extreme forms of subjective voluntarism, espoused in their pragmatism, emerge most openly. Pappini wrote that pragmatism is:

... a philosophy of action, a philosophy of doing, of rebuilding, transforming, creating!... No more wild goose chasing down roads leading nowhere save into the snares and traps of visionary logicians. The true is the useful. To know is to do. Among the many uncertain truths, choose the one best calculated to raise the tone of life and promising the most lasting rewards. If something is not true but we wish it were true, we will make it true: by faith. [16]

Mussolini, who proclaimed himself an admirer of James’ pragmatism, declared that “to fight for the establishment of that social order that at a given moment best corresponds to our personal ideal is one of the worthiest of human activities.” [17]

The issue here is not that pragmatists are inclined necessarily to become political reactionaries, let alone fascists. William James, as a matter of fact, was the most decent of human beings, and a leader of the anti-imperialist movement in the United States. But theoretical conceptions have a logic of their own, and the evolution of certain strains of pragmatic thought illustrates the dangerous implications of deprecating the Marxist effort to anchor political practice in a scientific study of the objective world. Pragmatic voluntarism can have disastrous results, even in the context of radical left politics. A political initiative that is based on an impressionistic appraisal of the objective situation, which assumes that subjective determination can, under all circumstances, impart to the political situation a revolutionary potential that may not be objectively present, can leave the working class exposed to a devastating counterattack.

This danger, I should stress, is not merely a theoretical possibility. The history of twentieth century revolutionary movements is littered with the political and social wreckage created by voluntarist policies that ignored the objective logic of law-governed historical and socioeconomic processes. Stalin’s policies (i.e., collectivization, super-rapid industrialization) should provide sufficient proof of the disastrous consequences of policies formulated with insufficient knowledge of, or indifference to, the existing objective conditions, and which exaggerate the transformative revolutionary potential of subjective will. Thus, the struggle for socialism requires that the tactics of the working class be based on a scientific understanding of the laws governing the world capitalist system, the international class struggle, and the forms of their reflection in mass consciousness. Herein lies the significance of perspective and the most exacting appraisal of the “objective situation,” upon which the Trotskyist movement has traditionally placed such intense emphasis.

One especially unpleasant expression of your indifference to political analysis is the manner in which you are willing to excuse even the grossest blunders of your utopian heroes. When comrade Steve Long pointed out to you, Comrade Steiner, that Jacoby (the author of your beloved The End of Utopia) writes as a proponent of a liberal revival, you merely shrugged your shoulders and replied: “Does that mean that we as Marxists are therefore entitled to ignore everything he writes beyond page 8 where he announces his intentions of reviving a form of radical liberalism?” Or in response to comrade Long’s reference to the unsavory political history of Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, you replied: “Yes, both Adorno and Marcuse were political opportunists who went along with the Moscow trials in the name of a ‘united front’ against fascism in the 1930s. Does that mean they had nothing relevant to say to us afterward?”

Has it not occurred to you that the political swinishness of these individuals (and let us not forget to include Ernst Bloch, who greeted with rapture the murder of the Old Bolsheviks), had something to do with their utopianism? Why should confidence be placed in the utopian conceptions of individuals who were incapable of making a correct appraisal of objective reality, or even distinguishing truth from the noxious lies of the Stalinist regime? Would it be impolite to ask what method they employed when they considered political issues? Or perhaps their genius was of such a rarified and special character that it worked only in the future tense!

As I explained in the summer of 2005: “Marxism, as a method of analysis and materialist world outlook, has uncovered laws that govern socioeconomic and political processes. Knowledge of these laws discloses trends and tendencies upon which substantial historical ‘predictions’ can be based, and which allow the possibility of intervening consciously in a manner that may produce an outcome favorable to the working class.” [18]

This is precisely what separates Marxist practice from all forms of pragmatic activism, whether of a “left” adventurist or opportunist-adaptive character. As a matter of historical fact, the method of “objectivism”—which may lead, depending on circumstances, to one or the other political form—found its most developed expression in the Fourth International in the revisionist theories and politics of Pablo and his acolytes, Mandel and Hansen. Pabloite revisionism made a specialty of demagogically invoking, in an entirely abstract manner, the image of an all-powerful wave of revolutionary struggles that would—regardless of the political leaderships of those struggles and the masses’ level of consciousness—sweep all obstacles before it and conquer power. As Cliff Slaughter explained so well (back in 1961 when he was still a Marxist):

The fundamental weakness of the SWP resolution is its substitution of “objectivism,” i.e. a false objectivity, for the Marxist method... From his analysis of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism, Lenin concluded that the conscious revolutionary role of the working class and its party was all-important. The protagonists of “objectivism” conclude, however, that the strength of the “objective factors” is so great that, regardless of the attainment of Marxist leadership of the proletariat in its struggle, the working-class revolution will be achieved, the power of the capitalists overthrown. [19]

“Objectivism,” as it is defined here by Cliff Slaughter, in opposition to the Pabloites, has absolutely nothing to do with your use of the term as an epithet directed against those who attempt to base revolutionary politics on a correct Marxist analysis of socioeconomic phenomena. The Pabloites refused to make a concrete analysis of the world economy in the aftermath of World War II, let alone relate those changes to developments in the international class struggle. Indeed, Slaughter repeatedly challenged the SWP to justify its “objectivist” conclusions within the framework of “the general historical perspective of class relations.” He stated: “The SWP must show in what way ‘objective factors’ in the world situation make it unnecessary in some cases to prepare and construct a revolutionary leadership.” [20] He also noted the connection between the “objectivism” of the Pabloites and their constant invocation of action, their demagogic references to “the ‘impatience’ of the masses who cannot delay the revolution until the construction of a Marxist leadership.” [21] Another characteristic of the Pabloites’ objectivism was their glorification of the most elementary forms of working class militancy, which served as justification for their own adaptation to the existing bureaucratic leaders, who invariably diverted the mass movement away from its revolutionary political tasks.

And that is exactly where your deceitful denunciation of our “objectivism” ends up. In the final analysis, your criticism of our “objectivism” is a repudiation of the study and analysis of socioeconomic conditions and the class character of political tendencies that exercise influence on the working class. Similarly, your denunciation of our “abstentionism” turns out to be nothing more than a veiled attack on the party’s assessment of the reactionary role of the trade unions. You state: “It has been well over a decade since the party made the assessment that there was no longer any potential left for the trade unions to play a progressive role, and yet in all that time nothing has been done to propose any alternatives to the working class. Nor has anything been done to work through the implications of the degeneration of the unions with the millions of workers still left within these organizations, since apart from journalism any work inside the unions seems to have long since been abandoned.”

First of all, is our analysis of the trade unions correct or incorrect? You fail to provide any analysis of the nature and role of the AFL-CIO and other official trade union organizations. Do you believe that they retain the potential to play what you call “a progressive role”? One may reasonably infer from your attack that you still do. But why do you fail to state this clearly, let alone explain on what you base your position? Nor do you attempt a critical examination of the extensive writings of the SEP and ICFI on the question of the trade unions, in which the theoretical basis of our principled position has been elaborated. In a manner that reeks of the most vulgar pragmatism, you complain that a worker who writes into the WSWS asking for advice “is typically given a lecture on the history of the labor bureaucracy but no indication whatever on how to conduct the struggle he is involved in.” Tell us, Comrades Steiner and Brenner, how is it possible for a worker to know how he should conduct a struggle, in which he is immediately engaged, without understanding the historical role of the trade unions? What are the implications of separating any given struggle in which workers are involved from the historical experience out of which it arose? Can a perspective for practical interventions in Russia be developed without educating workers in the history of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism? Or in China? Or in Eastern Europe? Can a worker in the Middle East know “how to conduct the struggle he is involved in” without studying the historical role of bourgeois nationalism and the significance of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution? How can the advanced sections of the Israeli working class find a way out of the blind alley of Jewish nationalism without understanding the origins and nature of Zionism? To state the issue as precisely as possible: the “nature” of any given struggle can only be understood when placed in the necessary historical context.

Your cheap gibe against the efforts of the WSWS to educate workers in history betrays, notwithstanding your rhetorical tributes to dialectics, an indifference to theory, which is derived from a painstaking review of the objective social experiences through which the working class has passed. As Trotsky explained so well, “To be guided by theory is to be guided by generalizations based on all the preceding practical experience of humanity in order to cope as successfully as possible with one or another practical problem of the present day. Thus, through theory we discover precisely the primacy of practice-as-a-whole over particular aspects of practice.” [22]

Tell us, Comrades Steiner and Brenner, what political generalizations have you drawn from the tragic experiences of the working class over the last twenty-five years? From the unending chain of defeats suffered by the American working class, as a consequence of the criminal treachery of the bureaucratic organizations? In what way have you incorporated the experiences of the international working class into your understanding of the tasks confronting workers in the United States? What lessons have you drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, all of which were dissolved by the ruling bureaucracies? Or from the transformation of the “People’s Republic” of China into the indispensable world center of low-wage capitalist industrial production? Or from the transformation of the British Labour Party into a vicious right-wing bourgeois party, which has severed all connections with the working class? Or from the continued support of the Trades Union Congress for this party? We could continue with many more questions of this sort, but can reasonably assume that no answer would be forthcoming. You have given no thought to the consequences, for both political perspectives and practice, of the collapse of all the traditional political and trade union organizations of the working class during the past quarter-century.


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), pp. 400–401, [emphasis in the original].


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 14 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 325, [emphasis in the original].


Quoted in On Pragmatism, by Cornelis De Waal (Wadsworth Philosophical Topics, 2005), p. 73, [emphasis in the original].


ibid., p. 74.


This is a passage from the fourth lecture, which included a substantial section refuting Sir Karl Popper’s attack on Marxism. Your document contains not a single reference to this lecture and its attack on Popper’s empiricism.


Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Volume 3 (London: New Park Publications, 1974), p. 161.


ibid., p. 162.




Leon Trotsky, “Philosophical Tendencies of Bureaucratism,” in The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928–29 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1981), p. 396.