David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Objective conditions, science and history

You decry our “search for salvation in Objective Conditions, in Science or History.” Permit me to remind you that the word “salvation” is not part of our political vocabulary. The socialist program does not include salvation, and those who are seeking it should be referred to clergymen of all faiths, who are the specialists in that field.

No doubt, you will protest that your reference to “salvation” is intended ironically, as a polemical thrust against our “objectivism.” I understand that very well, but it doesn’t alter the fact that your comment reeks of political despair and cynicism. You ought to retrace the process by which, since leaving the Trotskyist movement, you have come under the influence of anti-Marxist conceptions so fundamentally opposed to those that first brought you into the Workers League and International Committee in the early 1970s.

Today you sneer at our preoccupation with history. In what amounts to a complete misreading of Marx and Engels, you begin your document by quoting a well-known passage from The Holy Family, in which the founders of Marxism state: “‘History’ does nothing. It possesses no colossal riches...” You apparently believe that this passage should be read as a rebuke to the emphasis placed by the International Committee on the study of history. Of course, it is no such thing. Marx and Engels were criticizing the idealistic conceptions of the Left Hegelians, who transformed history into a self-motivating abstract concept, generating out of itself, in the manner of Hegel’s Absolute Idea, events that were mere manifestations of the concept’s own logically-driven self-negation. For Marx and Engels, the concept of history had to be abstracted from the study of the development of human society. The outcome of the critique of Hegelian idealism by Marx and Engels was the materialist conception of history.

You were once part of a generation of student youth who joined the Workers League and the International Committee precisely because it was the only movement whose work was based on the lessons of the tragic historical experiences of the twentieth century. Amidst the plethora of radical tendencies that were politically active in the era of our political awakening, the International Committee stood out as the only movement able to present an analysis of the Vietnam War, the eruptions in American cities, the expanding wave of working class and anti-imperialist struggles, within the context of a broad historical perspective. On what did we base our opposition to Stalinism, Maoism, Social Democracy, and Pabloite revisionism, if not the lessons of history?

The writings of Leon Trotsky armed those of us who joined the Workers League in the early 1970s with an understanding of the fate of the 1917 October Revolution, Bolshevism and the international struggle for socialism. We immersed ourselves in the study of all the great strategic lessons drawn by Trotsky from the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. The study of the protracted crisis of the German workers movement from the defeat of the Spartakus uprising in 1919, to the victory of the fascists in 1933, the British General Strike of 1926, the revolutionary events in China between 1925 and 1927, the struggle of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union between 1923 and 1933, the disastrous consequences of popular frontism in France and Spain in the 1930s, and the Moscow Trials—all these immense historical experiences were incorporated into the training of the cadre of the Workers League and the International Committee. Putting aside for a moment all the irreconcilable programmatic differences, what immediately distinguished the cadre of the ICFI from that of all other movements was its preoccupation with history, its intense belief that the past was not dead, but that, to use the words of Faulkner, “It’s not even past!” We believed that history lived in the concrete form of the political conditions and contradictions inherited from the past, and within whose framework the present struggles developed, as well as in the forms of political and social consciousness among the masses.

But now you write as if you find our continued preoccupation with history a cause for bemusement! While you tell us that postmodernism is a mere fad on the wane, your own dismissive attitude toward history bears the mark of this reactionary school of bourgeois philosophy.

As for your dismissive reference to science, we see this as an expression of your capitulation to the irrationalist, anti-science and anti-technology moods found among broad sections of the ex-radical petty-bourgeoisie. We have already dealt with the philosophical roots and implications of this outlook. Let us now consider its practical connotations. In this context, it should be noted that Geoghegan’s book included a chapter devoted to the “utopianism” of the late Rudolf Bahro, the East German dissident who eventually emigrated to the German Federal Republic and became active in the newly formed Green Party. Perhaps out of embarrassment, you chose to avoid reference to Geoghegan’s sympathetic review of the work of Bahro, who explicitly rejected both Marxism and the central historical role of the working class. He explained that Bahro, “rejects the technological/industrial idea of progress which is dominant in the modern world. It is a selfish and destructive concept which helps perpetuate all the other types of oppression in society. A break has to be made with such ways—future society will have to be ‘simpler’ or it will not be able to exist at all...” [109]

These views are, in fact, very close to those presented by you, Comrade Brenner, in your neo- (or pseudo) utopian manifesto, To Know a Thing is to Know its End. Criticizing Comrade Beams for emphasizing the progressive potential of technology in a socialized economy, which will allow an immense expansion in the productivity of labor and the realization of human potential, you asserted: “A socialist vision, as opposed to a utilitarian one, subordinates productivity to human development, and that means support for ideas that often run directly counter to the maximization of economic growth, ideas like ‘the right to be lazy.’”

You were not talking simply about the misuse of technology and human productivity in an economic system dominated by private ownership of the means of production, whose aim is the attainment of maximum profits and the accumulation of massive personal wealth for members of the ruling elite. You state “there is no reason why... freedom requires endless economic growth,” and then add, “The point is rather that, for the first generations after a revolution—whose priorities at any rate will be the elimination of global hunger, poverty and disease—the emphasis will not be so much on technological change as on consolidation, on sorting out what best meets human needs and what works best ecologically.”

It boggles the mind to work through the social implications of a freeze, spanning several generations, on economic growth and the forced inhibition of technological change (for restraints on the development of technology would require nothing less than police-state measures). This is a recipe for social catastrophe, inklings of which can be found in the horrifying consequences of the reactionary experiments of various Maoist-influenced movements that were able to come to power. Such views and policies are hostile to Marxism, which, as Trotsky explained in Revolution Betrayed, “sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces.” [110]

Your effort to separate human freedom from the growth of technique and productivity betrays an ignorance of theory and history. If you were correct, the socialist revolution would represent the first occasion in history when society overthrew its existing forms of economic organization in order to restrain the development of technology and the productivity of labor. But, as Trotsky wrote: “Reduced to its primary basis, history is nothing but a struggle for an economy of working time. Socialism could not be justified by the abolition of exploitation alone: it must guarantee to society a higher economy of time than is guaranteed by capitalism. Without the realization of this condition, the mere removal of exploitation would be but a dramatic episode without a future.” [111]

As has now become clear, your cynical reference to our confidence in the potential of science betrays a social perspective that is backward, if not outright reactionary.

There is another aspect of this question that deserves to be considered. The fight for socialist consciousness, above all in the United States, demands an unrelenting defense of scientific thought against all forms of backwardness. This issue was addressed at a lecture that I delivered in New York, in April 2005, on the subject of Terry Schiavo:

An essential component of efforts to organize workers politically as a class is the struggle to raise their intellectual and cultural level, to champion the cause of scientific thought against all forms of religious superstition and backwardness—that is, to champion a materialist, Marxist understanding, not only of the socioeconomic relations of society, but also the foundations and structure of human consciousness. As in the past, the socialist movement must recognize the vast scope of its theoretical and pedagogical responsibilities to the working class.

We can draw great encouragement from the fact that science is providing the socialist movement with a vast new array of intellectual weapons. It is ironic that the field of science at the very center of the Terri Schiavo controversy—neurobiology—is the scene today of the most spectacular theoretical breakthroughs. Astonishing advances are being made in the understanding of the physiology of the brain, the most complex of all material structures. And these, in turn, substantiate the materialist understanding of consciousness and cognition championed by Marxism. It is no wonder that the ruling elite should so fear the work of the finest scientists, whose discoveries in the field of neurobiology and related areas of research are systematically demolishing the last redoubts of religious mysticism.

The working class cannot advance without the aid of science. But science itself requires the advance of the working class. Today, the growth of political reaction in the United States places the scientific researcher under siege. But the isolated scientist cannot defend him- or herself any more successfully than the individual worker. In the final analysis, the progress of science as a whole, not to mention the physical safety of individual researchers, depends on the resurgence of a new revolutionary movement of the working class. In the most profound historical sense, the socialist movement unites under its banner both the pursuit of scientific truth, in all its forms, and the struggle for human equality.

Finally, we come to your contemptuous reference to our conviction that “objective conditions” will provide the foundations for the solution of all political tasks. May we ask, where else are they to be found? In a sentence you have intended as a criticism of the International Committee, but which unintentionally exposes your own descent into subjective idealism and irrationalism, you write: “The more the real problems of fighting for socialist consciousness recede over the horizon of ‘objective conditions,’ the more remote the working class becomes from the activity and concerns of the movement.” This is mysticism, not Marxism. Those who propose to wage their fight for consciousness “over the horizon of ‘objective conditions’” are, in fact, seeking to flee reality.

We live and fight in the world of “objective conditions,” which is both the source of our present-day troubles and their ultimate solution. Whatever shall emerge in the future shall be the product of conditions that exist today. As Marx and Engels explained:

… in reality and for the practical materialist, i.e., the communist, it is a question of revolutionising the existing world, of practically coming to grips with and changing the things found in existence…

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the now existing premise. [112]

The understanding that this world, in which we live today, contains within it the real potential for a social revolution, which will cleanse the world of all violence and inhumanity, is the source of a genuine optimism that has no need for supplementary pseudo-utopian anti-depressants.


* * * * *

The views that you, Comrades Steiner and Brenner, have presented in your various documents, record the immense theoretical and political distance you have drifted from Marxism since you both left the movement nearly three decades ago. To continue along your present trajectory can only lead to the complete repudiation of whatever remains of the political convictions you espoused many years ago. We hope this will not happen. The International Committee urges both of you to study this document carefully and to reconsider the positions you now hold.


Geoghegan, Utopianism and Marxism, p. 118.


Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1991), p. 39.


ibid., p. 68.


Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5, pp. 38–49, [emphasis in the original].