David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

The WSWS and “political exposures”

Now let us return to your analysis of my conception of the struggle for socialist consciousness. Referring to (but not quoting from) my lecture on What Is To Be Done?, you state:

North tries to shoehorn Lenin into providing a justification for this abstentionism by highlighting the phrase “political exposures” by which Lenin contrasted his approach to developing class consciousness to the Economists’ focus on bread-and-butter issues. North jumps on this phrase because it seems to sanction the journalistic existence of the WSWS, but it is nonsense to suppose that Lenin saw this phrase as some sort of all-purpose recipe for dealing with an issue as complex as the development of class consciousness.

The worst sort of polemic, Comrades Steiner and Brenner, is that which either assumes, or appeals to, the ignorance of readers. And that is precisely the method you employ. As I have already noted, you never quote accurately and in context from any of my reports. Your aim is not to educate, but to mislead and deceive. In your attack on my analysis of What Is To Be Done?, you quote neither my lecture, nor any part of the text of Lenin’s seminal work, to which I referred. “Political Exposures” is not a phrase that I “highlighted” (i.e., exaggerated) in order to provide a false authority for the work of the WSWS. These words actually appear as part of the title of the third section (“Political Exposures and Training in Revolutionary Activity”) of Chapter III, “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of Social Democrats.” As employed by Lenin, “political exposures” is not a mere phrase, but rather a central concept in his theory of socialist consciousness. This concept developed over several years in the course of the struggle against Economism, which was the specific form taken by Bernsteinite revisionism in Russia. The latter tendency sought to replace the revolutionary Social Democratic concentration on the political education of the working class, to which Plekhanov and Lenin attributed primary and overriding importance, with agitation over economic issues along conventional militant trade unionist lines. Lenin wrote, in the third section of Chapter III:

A basic condition for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organisation of comprehensive political exposure. In no way except by means of such exposures can the masses be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity. Hence, activity of this kind is one of the most important functions of international Social-Democracy as a whole, for even political freedom does not in any way eliminate exposures; it merely shifts somewhat their sphere of direction. [30]

Lenin continued:

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected—unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. [31]

At the conclusion of the same paragraph, Lenin states: “These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.” [32]

Attempting to disparage the work of the ICFI, you refer contemptuously to “the journalistic existence of the WSWS,” and even equate political exposures with mere “journalism.” One is entitled to ask when journalism, the occupation of so many revolutionary Marxists, became a term of abuse? What little money Marx earned came from his work as a journalist. Prior to 1917, Trotsky listed “journalist” as his profession. Countless other Marxists practiced this profession. One might say, following Wilde, that it is neither moral nor immoral to practice journalism. The issue is whether one does it well or badly, as a conscientious observer and analyst, or as a propagandist and apologist for the interests of the ruling elite.

Your derogatory remark is nothing more than an appeal to political backwardness and anti-intellectualism. You are attacking the International Committee for creating an organ that presents its analysis and program to a world audience of socialist and politically progressive workers, intellectuals and young people. Only those who oppose the struggle for Marxism and socialist ideas would disparage such essential activity. Would you prefer that the work of political analysis be left to the reactionary bourgeois press, or to the left-liberal advisers of the Democratic Party, in such publications as Salon and The Nation (which has recently devoted considerable resources to the development of its web site), or to the myriad perpetually disoriented petty-bourgeois radical groups?

At any rate, since when have Marxists considered it inappropriate to concentrate their energies on the publication of a theoretical and political organ? As you well know, the creation of a political newspaper, Iskra, represented a milestone in the development of the Russian socialist movement. This was a task to which Lenin had devoted years of his early political life. As he wrote in 1901, in his article “Where to Begin”:

In our opinion, the starting-point of our activities, the first step toward creating the desired organisation, or, let us say, the main thread which, if followed, would enable us steadily to develop, deepen, and extend that organisation, should be the founding of an All-Russian political newspaper. A newspaper is what we most of all need; without it we cannot conduct that systematic, all-round propaganda and agitation, consistent in principle, which is the chief and permanent task of Social-Democracy in general and, in particular, the pressing task of the moment, when interest in politics and in questions of socialism has been aroused among the broadest strata of the population.... Without a political organ, a political movement deserving of that name is inconceivable in the Europe of today. Without such a newspaper, we cannot possibly fulfil our task—that of concentrating all the elements of political discontent and protest, of vitalising thereby the revolutionary movement of the proletariat. We have taken the first step, we have aroused in the working class a passion for “economic,” factory exposures; we must now take the next step, that of arousing in every section of the population that is at all politically conscious a passion for political exposure. [33]

Sensing that your dismissal of “political exposures” is extremely vulnerable to theoretical rebuttal, you suddenly shift gears and assert that “it is no disservice to Lenin to note that times have changed since 1902: today’s petty-bourgeois radicals, unlike their Economist predecessors, are far removed not only from bread-and-butter issues but from anything to do with the working class.”

Here you manage to combine an empty cliché, a political non-sequitur, and a clearly false statement in just one sentence. You tell us that “times have changed.” Yes, we all know that we live in 2006, not 1902. But what, in the present situation, has diminished the relevance of the principled and theoretically-grounded emphasis that Lenin placed on the development of political consciousness in the working class? The concept of political exposures arose out of an analysis of the problem, rooted in the very nature of capitalist society, of developing the class consciousness of the proletariat. The relevance of that analysis could be diminished only if such basic structural changes had occurred in the capitalist mode of production, and the general organization of bourgeois society, that the development of socialist class consciousness no longer required the additional impulse of Marxist-inspired political exposures. But if this were the case, then we would be compelled to reconsider the relevance of Lenin’s more general claim that socialist consciousness cannot develop spontaneously, that it must be introduced into the working class from the outside.

You assert that a critical difference between present conditions and those of 1902, which therefore lessens the importance of political exposures, is that petty-bourgeois radicals are completely different from the old Economists, in that they “are far removed not only from bread-and-butter issues but from anything at all to do with the working class.”

First of all, the relevance of Lenin’s theory of consciousness depends not on what forms of activity petty-bourgeois radicals may or may not be engaged in, but upon the objective structure and social relations of capitalist society. Second, your claim is absolutely false from a factual standpoint. The present-day bureaucracy of the trade unions is saturated with middle-class refugees from the radical political organizations of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The president of the SEIU, Andrew Stern, is only one of scores of ex-radicals who have made careers in the upper councils of the labor bureaucracy. The New Directions movement, which controls TWU Local 100, is the creation of various radical tendencies. The petty-bourgeois radical Solidarity tendency is deeply integrated into the bureaucracy of various unions. And, we might point out, none other than Nancy Fields Wohlforth, whom I am sure you remember, has recently been elected to the International Executive Board of the AFL-CIO. Her evolution entirely substantiates the assessment that we jointly made of Fields and her former husband, Tim Wohlforth, in the pamphlet that you, Comrade Steiner, and I co-authored more than thirty years ago, The Fourth International and the Renegade Wohlforth. I would strongly encourage you to re-read this work.

So much for the claim that petty-bourgeois radicals have nothing “at all to do with the working class.” The exact opposite is the case: they have become the most fanatical converts to trade union opportunism in its most reactionary forms. Their activities are ruthlessly directed against the development of socialist political activity in the working class.

Your next argument against the WSWS is an absurdity. You tell us that political exposures are to be found “on a plethora of radical websites on the internet and in the increasingly popular medium of documentary filmmaking. Michael Moore has become famous producing ‘political exposures,’ but this is still very far from class consciousness, and the gap is painfully evident in the way a film like Fahrenheit 9/11 was used to enlist support for the Democrats.”

Do you expect this to be taken as a serious argument against the work of the WSWS? What conclusion is to be drawn from your dubious syllogism: (1) The WSWS produces political exposures, (2) Michael Moore produces political exposures, therefore (3) the politics of the WSWS and the politics of Michael Moore are the same? Or, perhaps, (1) Petty-bourgeois radicals produce political exposures, (2) WSWS writers produce political exposures, therefore (3) WSWS writers are petty-bourgeois radicals?

You conclude this section of your document with the following astonishing statement: “If Lenin were alive today, he’d be far more likely to say that while ‘political exposures’ are all well and good, the crying need is for Marxists to do what they can to fill the immense vacuum of leadership in struggles like those of the transit workers.” Lenin as a trade union activist! If that is true, then it is just as possible that Marx, were he alive today, might be running the arbitrage department at the Deutsche Bank. And Engels, perhaps, would be the CEO of Daimler Benz. But then, these reincarnations would not be Marx, Engels and Lenin.


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961), p. 412, [emphasis in the original].


ibid., [emphasis in the original].


ibid., p. 413, [emphasis in the original].


ibid., p. 20–21, [emphasis in the original].