Karl Marx & F Engels
This was the first major work written jointly by Marx and Engels. It was commissioned by the international Communist League in 1848 – the Year of Revolutions. There were bourgeois-democratic revolts, supported by the burgeoning working classes, against aristocratic rule in several European countries. The Manifesto had little influence at the time. But in the twentieth century it inspired socialist revolutions in Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere. By then it was one of the most widely read books of all time.
When the Manifesto was written, British capitalism was reaching its apogee, symbolised by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Britain was for a few decades the workshop of the world. Marx and Engels write almost lyrically about how the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) had transformed society, revolutionising transport, creating a world market, sweeping away feudal restrictions.
In doing all this the capitalists also created periodic crises of over-production. And they called into existence the modern working class – the proletariat – who are destined to supplant them through class struggle. The first chapter of the Manifesto concludes with the famous words: What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.
The second chapter outlines how the working class might carry out its historic task of abolishing capitalism and building socialism. The class struggle will culminate in the working class seizing state power, winning the battle for democracy. And then, when a socialist society has been created and the state has disappeared, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all
Marx’s magnum opus is the Bible of Marxism. And like the Bible, it’s quoted more than it’s read. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson said he gave up reading Capital because of the length of the footnotes; he didn’t mention that the footnotes show the width and depth of Marx’s reading, including many British and Irish texts.
It is said that Herbert Morrison was seen in the corridors of the London School of Economics with a volume of Capital under his arm, causing the late, great T A Jackson to observe that there’s a limit to the amount of political economy that can be absorbed through the armpit.
William Morris wrote: whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the historical part of Capital, I suffered agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work.
Capital has to be studied, and should eventually be studied by every Communist. The best way to start is to read selected passages as part of a formal course on political economy, helped by an experienced tutor and an informed discussion. If tackling Capital on your own, read first Lenin’s summary of Marx’s political economy in his 1914 article Karl Marx.
Capital has three volumes. Few readers get beyond the first, in which Marx gives a complete account of his generalised model of capitalism. The second and third volumes, put together by Engels from Marx’s notes, explore some of the complications of the behaviour of capital in the real world.
Classical economics had got into a blind alley. The man who found the way out of this bland alley was Karl Marx. Thus wrote Frederick Engels in his 1891 introduction to these brief lectures Marx first gave in 1847. Engels was thinking mainly of Marx’s startling discovery that what the worker sells to his capitalist employer is not his labour, but his labour power, his ability to work. This distinction enabled Marx to scientifically describe the process of capitalist exploitation and accumulation. But in 1847 his account of capitalism was still incomplete. So Engels later altered the text to bring it into line with Marx’s mature thought.
This little booklet is still a good read. What makes it unusual and gives it continuing interest is that it approaches the analysis of capitalist relations of production through the nature and determination of wages. In so doing, Marx explodes some of the myths that are still current in right-wing propaganda. One is that capitalists and workers divide the surplus between them and can be regarded as colleagues or partners. Another is that capitalist growth sends wealth trickling down to workers; Marx shows that it actually reduces what he calls relative wages.
This booklet was originally an address to the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association (“the First International”) given by Marx over two days in 1865. It was a rejoinder to John Weston, an English member of the council, who maintained that higher wages cannot improve the condition of workers and that trade unions are harmful. So the text is highly polemical and shows what a formidable debater Marx was. In demolishing Weston’s arguments, Marx in effect summarises the new and revolutionary economic theory expounded more fully in his great work Capital, which he was then preparing for its publication in 1867.
First time readers will surely be impressed by the ways in which Marx reveals his familiarity with the ideas of previous thinkers and supports his own arguments with relevant contemporary data. And of course, he draws practical, political conclusions from his theoretical presentation; trade unions should engage in the daily struggle to defend and advance wages, while at the same time working for the ultimate abolition of the wages system.
This document has become famous because it was the first in which Marx used the slogan From each according to their ability to each according to their needs. He didn’t invent it; the slogan had been used by socialists before. But Marx was the first to point out that this aspiration could be realised only in the mature second and higher phase of socialism (now generally described as full communism). It would have to be preceded by a first stage of socialism when the ruling slogan would be From each according to their ability to each according to their contribution. This stage would provide the opportunity and the incentive for the builders of socialism to overcome the negative economic and psychological legacy of capitalism.
The Critique was originally Marx’s private commentary to some communist friends on a very backward programme of the German socialists. So it is highly polemical and gives an insight into Marx’s style of arguing a case. It also contains some gems of Marx’s writing, among them his explanation as to why non-proletarian parties are not just “one reactionary mass”, and his account of emerging socialism “still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society”.
This volume is a mine of treasures to be worked with patience and profit.
This is the third major work written by Marx (with important and significant introductions by Engels) on the revolutionary upheavals in France in the middle of the 19th century and which saw the working class start to emerge as an independent actor in its own right.
The Civil War covers the dramatic events of the Franco-Prussian War, the fall of the Second French Empire, and the heroic episode of the Paris Commune, the first worker’s government in history.
Marx in perhaps some of his most brilliantly concise and penetrating addresses, written with flair and passion and in the heat of the events themselves, manages to distil the experience of the Commune down to its most important elements.
For two months between March and May 1871, the armed workers of Paris, surrounded by enemies on all sides, took destiny into their own hands and demonstrated it was possible for workers to run society democratically, without capitalists, bankers or a standing army. The descriptions of the absence of crime during the Commune are particularly striking.
This enabled Marx and Engels to provide a major update to their revolutionary conception of what a working class state might look like after the proletarian revolution. Engels in his postscript stated the Paris Commune was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in action.
“Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”
This is the mature Engels’ quite brief and very readable statement of the case for socialism and the means to achieve it. In the middle of the nineteenth century most socialists were Utopians building on the notions of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. So Engels devotes the first chapter to countering the views of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen. They are not significant influences today, but there are still well-meaning people who dream of socialism without class struggle, so Engels’
arguments against the Utopians remain relevant.
The second chapter describes dialectical and historical materialism, while the third deals with the origin and outcome of class struggle, ending with the inspiring prophecy that the achievement of socialism will be “humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom”.
Be sure not to miss Engels’ 1892 Introduction to the first English edition. It is a brilliant example of how to use historical materialism to analyse concrete processes, in this case the triumph of capitalism over feudalism in Europe, and especially in Britain. Engels shows how the economic base (the forces and relations of production) is the ultimate source of the superstructure of philosophical and religious ideas, but the latter have a life of their own and can influence changes in the base.
This is the earliest of all our selected classics, published (in German) in1845, three years before The Communist Manifesto. It was the result of Engels’ first working stint in Manchester. In his spare time he turned his back on his middle class colleagues and explored the slums, guided by his Irish working class lover Mary Burns. It is a long book that not many today will want to read right through. But open it at almost any page and you will find detailed descriptions of working class life in the “hungry forties”. Much of this is drawn from official reports that few people read, here brought to life by Engels’ personal observations and commentary.
Engels saw the plight of the people but he also saw them fighting back through trade unions, Owenite socialism, and Chartism. He engaged in the battle of ideas, especially demolishing the theories of Malthus, then popular among the middle classes, which purported to prove that poverty was inevitable. Engels was then a young man imbued with enthusiasm for the struggle and hope for the outcome. Most of his predictions, such as the ending of Britain’s industrial monopoly and the enactment of the Chartist demands, were accurate, but took much longer than he expected. And we are still preparing for the revolution Engels knew was inevitable.
On leaving Manchester, Engels for the first time sat down with Marx to develop the world outlook they had each arrived at independently. Engels’ experiences in Manchester were a vital input to the Marxist view that the class struggle is the driving force of history, and that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.
While not as famous as Capital or the Communist Manifesto, Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State remains one of the most influential works to come from the Marx-Engels partnership. Following Marx’s death in 1883, Engels sought to develop Marx’s notes on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), an influential book in its own right, which examined the progression of human society. First published in 1884, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State is an ambitious account of the development of human history and class-based societies through to the rise of the state and looks to the future transformation to a classless society.
As a thoroughgoing work of historical materialism, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State has become a foundational socialist text. But its influence can also be traced (whether in agreement or disagreement) among anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and indeed anyone wishing to provide a serious explanation of class divisions in human societies. With its discussion of the origin, development, and changing roles of the family, it is little surprise that it remains a central text in some of the most high-profile and heated discussions about how we understand sex and gender roles in relation to capitalism today.
James Connolly (1868-1916) was an outstanding Irish patriot and socialist who led the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and was martyred by the British authorities. In this 1910 book he made a Marxist analysis of the attitudes and actions of the various social classes at critical points in Irish history, including the struggles of the United Irishmen, the role of Daniel O’Connell, the famine, and the Fenian campaigns. Connolly’s message that only the working class are “the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland” is more than ever true today. The book is a fine example of the application of historical materialism to concrete situations. At the same time, it is imbued with Connolly’s love for the common people, and anger at their oppressors and betrayers, whether English or Irish.
Connolly wrote this short pamphlet in 1909 during one of his periods as an organiser and agitator in the USA with the Industrial Workers of the World (the famous “Wobblies”). Connolly could write with clarity and passion, one of the many reasons for his enduring appeal. In Workshop Talks he sought to answer many of the questions ordinary workers asked about what socialism was and what it meant for them, to respond to the lies about the socialist movement common at that time, and to attack the reformist ideas that were gaining traction.
Connolly’s trenchant analysis remains relevant. Think for instance of how our “moderate” and “practical” social democrats collaborated with capitalist ruling class forces to undermine Corbyn’s leadership. They were happier to see the Tories in charge than have a Labour government led by a real socialist.
Coming from a very poor background in Edinburgh, Connolly grew into one of the most cogent Marxist intellectuals in history, a man who learned Italian so he could address union members from Italy on the docks.
The last section of Workshop Talks deals with issues of religion and Irish nationalism, and their relationship to socialism. Connolly’s thoughts will probably find a new relevance as Ireland moves towards unity, and faces issues regarding the nature of the 32-county republic. Read and enjoy, and put these closing remarks of Connolly into action:
Therefore, I say, let us organise as a class to meet our masters and destroy their mastership; organise to drive them from their hold upon public life through their political power; organise to wrench from their robber clutch the land and workshops on and in which they enslave us; organise to cleanse our social life from the stain of social cannibalism, from the preying of man upon his fellow man.
This 1902 pamphlet was written for the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), formed in 1898 to bring together all the disparate Marxist groups which then existed in Russia. It became one of the key works setting out the political, ideological and organisational principles for a disciplined, centralised organisation of committed activists who would fuse the then underground struggle for political freedom with the class struggle of the proletariat. These principles have subsequently been adopted by the majority of the world’s Communist Parties.
Lenin contested the view held by the so-called Economists that the working class will spontaneously become political simply by fighting battles with employers over wages, working hours, and the like. He insisted that Marxists should form a political party, or vanguard, of dedicated revolutionaries in order to spread Marxist political ideas among the workers. He argued that understanding politics requires understanding the whole of society, the relations between all classes and all struggles, including democratic struggles with the state, not just workers’ economic struggles with their employers.
Lenin argued that the building of a political party of the working class should begin by the founding of a militant newspaper on an all- Russian scale, which would carry on propaganda and agitation in favour of the views of revolutionary Social-Democracy (then the term for Communism).
Although written specifically about the need for a centralised
revolutionary party in conditions of illegality, the principles set out in What is to be Done? have proved to be just as applicable in conditions of legality and bourgeois democracy in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries.
This is one of the foundational texts of Marxism-Leninism. If What is to be Done? provided the ideological principles of the Communist Party, One Step Forward provided the organisational basis.
It was written by Lenin in February – May 1904 following the Second Congress of the RSDLP which had taken place in July and August 1903 in Brussels and London. This had resulted in a split between the Bolsheviks (“majority”) and the Mensheviks (“minority”).
It is not the easiest of reads, as Lenin makes a careful study of the minutes and resolutions of the Second Party Congress, of the speeches of each of the delegates and the political groupings at the Congress, and of the Central Committee and Party Council document, in order to establish the political positions of the Bolsheviks, and differentiate them from their opponents.
Lenin argued the Party was a part, a detachment of the working class, but more than this, was a class conscious vanguard of the working class, able to lead the working class and direct its struggle.
He goes on to describe the Party as “the highest of all forms of organisation of the working class”, it must be centralised and must operate with its own binding discipline on all members.
The Party is also an embodiment of the connection of the vanguard of the working class with the working class millions. In order to live and develop, the Party must multiply its connections with the masses and win the confidence of the millions of its class.
This is one of the foundational texts of Marxism-Leninism and sets out some of the key revolutionary positions of Russian Bolshevism.
It was written by Lenin in Geneva, in June-July 1905 at the time of the first Russian Revolution. It was published in late July 1905, by the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). The RSDLP was a socialist party formed in 1898 in order to try and unite the various revolutionary organisations in the Russian empire into one political party. It later split in 1903 between the Bolsheviks (“majority”) and the Mensheviks (“minority”). The Bolsheviks eventually became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Lenin sets forth his basic views on the bourgeois revolution in Russia, on which serious differences had developed with the Mensheviks. The 1905 Revolution was then in progress, and Lenin felt the need for a clear understanding of the character and driving forces of that revolution, the role of the working class in it, the revolutionary prospects, and the tactics arising from the analysis.
Here is developed in full the concept of the revolutionary-democratic government of the proletariat and the peasantry and the path of transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the socialist revolution.
The views elucidated in this work were followed by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1905-1907, which Lenin later called the “dress rehearsal” for the Revolution of 1917, and helped inform the revolutionary positions to be taken in both the February and October Revolutions of 1917.
Lenin wrote this short article in 1913 for the 30 th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. It is probably the briefest account of Marxism that you’re likely to find. And Lenin was particularly concerned to show that, in developing his ideas, Marx absorbed and built on the greatest intellectual achievements up to that time: German philosophy, especially the work of Hegel, who discovered dialectics; English political economy, especially Adam Smith and Ricardo, who developed the labour theory of value; and French socialism, especially Fourier and Saint-Simon, who presented Utopian visions of just and equal societies. These were the three sources of Marxism, providing its three components: philosophy, economics and politics. Lenin’s little piece is as good an introduction as any to the many-sided but coherent thinking of Marx and Engels.
Lenin returned from exile to Russia in April 1917, following the February Revolution, which had overthrown the rule of the Tsar and established some basic democratic freedoms. In two speeches he set out much of the ideological, political and organisational framework which underpinned the Great October Socialist Revolution later that year.
This was a very complex, rapidly changing, and confusing period. The February Revolution had led to development of “dual power”, with governance shared between the Provisional Government, and the soviets (councils) of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies, direct forms of democratic working class organisation. The latter were still dominated by non-Bolshevik parties which wanted to continue the war against Germany.
In ten closely argued, concise and hard-hitting ‘theses’ Lenin sought to refocus the Bolshevik Party, as it emerged from illegality into this complex and unstable situation. He argued that a highly complex class situation existed following the February Revolution. The classic tasks of the bourgeois revolution to completely destroy the monarchy, feudalism and landlordism were still uncompleted, yet at the same time, in places the revolution had moved on to direct forms of working class (proletarian) power, the soviets.
Lenin was clear that “it is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism”, but nonetheless put forward a number of immediate demands which would strengthen the soviets and start to establish a more socialistic basis for both industry and agriculture.
Reading the April Theses reveals how the Bolsheviks were able to lead a successful revolution only a few months later. They are a prime example of Lenin’s advice that only concrete analysis of concrete conditions will lead to successful political action.
It was also in this document that Lenin called for the revolutionary wings of the Social Democratic parties to be renamed Communist Parties, the term used by Marx and Engels (and by William Morris).
This is Lenin in 1920 using his now vast experience of revolution to warn European communists of some strategic hazards in their attitude to right-wing reformists. The booklet is especially interesting to British comrades because it engages with the debate then raging in the meetings preparing to establish the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Should Communists work in reactionary trade unions? Should they campaign for a Labour government? Lenin’s discussion includes the famous – and often maliciously misinterpreted – sentence I wanted to support Henderson [right-wing Labour leader] with my vote in the same way as a rope supports the hanged. Workers must learn not just from propaganda but above all from their own experience that what we now call social democracy is a blind alley. At the same time, Lenin noted the extremely unique character of the British Labour Party, giving Communists unusual challenges and opportunities.
The book is imbued with Lenin’s immense confidence that if Communists work correctly the vast majority of working people will eventually turn to our party to lead them to socialism.
Written in August – September 1917, this is often regarded as one of Lenin’s best works, and by some as “his greatest contribution to political theory”. In it he clearly, incisively, logically, and indeed vividly, sets out the Marxist theory of the state, and the tasks of the proletariat in the successive stages of the socialist revolution. He references a number of the classic works by Marx and Engels and thereby provides a good taster for some of these key works as well.
Lenin traces the development of the state over the course of human history, and defines it clearly and bluntly as “an organisation of violence for the suppression of some class.” He argues against both the reformists who think the state can be simply taken over and used to establish socialism, and the anarchists, who call for the immediate overthrow and destruction of the state with nothing to replace it.
Lenin argues that the bourgeois state, an instrument of capitalist class rule, must be overthrown and destroyed, and replaced by a proletarian state, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (‘Dictatorship’ in this context simply means the class rule of the majority working class over the overthrown minority capitalist class and their allies).
The initial roles of this proletarian state are to suppress the resistance of the overthrown class and its allies, and to begin to organise the working class and society for socialism. As the resistance of opponents of socialism fades away, and as socialism is established, consolidated and developed, the need for the state itself starts to decline and in the classic phrase of Marx it starts to “wither away”.
In discussing the political forms that the proletarian state might take, Lenin draws on the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and of the soviets (councils) of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies in Russia in the 1905 and February 1917 revolutions.
The socialist state must be inherently far more democratic than any form of capitalist state, involving a wide range of direct and indirect mechanisms and processes for working people to run society in the interests of the vast majority.
This pioneering work was written in the same year (1917) that Lenin wrote State and Revolution. Each author could not have known about the other’s work. But it is highly significant that, at a time when the revolutionary tide was rising everywhere, leaders of the Russian Bolsheviks and the British Socialist Labour Party should both have seen the role of the state as a crucial issue for the theory and practice of Marxism.
Paul deals historically with the emergence of the state in class-divided society, and its subsequent evolution. He presents lots of fascinating insights into the course of human development from primitive communism to advanced capitalism. Paul had read widely and he offers many quotations from writers, mainly British, who – though not Marxists – had grasped some of the essential features of the state.
Paul was quite clear that the state in all class-divided societies is an institution employing force and fraud to maintain the rule of the exploiting minority over the exploited majority. But he was not so clear about the role of the state in the transition to socialism. While recognising that the socialist revolution must destroy (“uproot”) the capitalist state, Paul appeared to believe that workers united in industrial unions could not only organise production but also be responsible for the governance of an emerging new society. This view reflects the syndicalist and anarchist theories that had some influence on the labour movement in the early twentieth century.
Paul fails to see the need for a centralised socialist state to defend the gains of the revolution from counter-revolutionaries at home and abroad, and to support trade unions and other mass organisations in creating the new classless society. Only when the state has done its job can it wither away. Paul never refers to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which was at the heart of Lenin’s teaching.
This booklet is both a historic document and a good read today. William Paul was born in Glasgow in 1884. Before the first world war he moved to Derby, where his memory is enshrined in the name of the local Communists’ William Paul Society. Paul was a prominent figure in the discussions leading to the formation of the Communist Party in 1920.
His exposition of scientific socialism dates from 1918 when Paul was a leader of the Socialist Labour Party. This was a Marxist group that had broken away from the Social Democratic Federation in 1903; most of its members lived in Scotland. Paul writes:The reason why Socialism is able to explain the past and the present and to foreshadow the future is because it establishes itself upon the facts of history and the truths of economic science.
Present day readers may enjoy a presentation of Marxist fundamentals in language somewhat different from what is normal today. At the same time they should be wary of attitudes reflecting the syndicalism that was influential in the early twentieth century. Paul is at pains to point out that industrial action must be complemented by political action. But his concept of political action is limited to the election of MPs who will preach socialism in Parliament. There is no notion of a coordinated parliamentary and extraparliamentary struggle on immediate issues leading to a demand for fundamental change.
Reading Paul is instructive and inspiring but his weaknesses show the need for the Communist Party that he helped to found.
This is a collection of nine lectures delivered by Joseph Stalin at Sverdlov University in 1924, the year Lenin died and Stalin became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. However one assesses Stalin’s subsequent actions as leader of the USSR until his death in 1953, these lectures provide one of the clearest, most readable and succinct introductions to the basic ideas and principles of Marxism-Leninism.
They cover the historical roots of Leninism, method and theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the peasant question, the national question, strategy and tactics, and style of work. Stalin sums up:
“Leninism is Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular”. Marx and Engels pursued their activities in the pre-revolutionary period (we have the proletarian revolution in mind), when developed imperialism did not yet exist, in the period of the proletarians’ preparation for revolution, in the period when the proletarian revolution was not yet an immediate practical inevitability. But Lenin, the disciple of Marx and Engels, pursued his activities in the period of developed imperialism, in the period of the unfolding proletarian revolution, when the proletarian revolution had already triumphed in one country, had smashed bourgeois democracy and had ushered in the era of proletarian democracy, the era of the Soviets. That is why Leninism is the further development of Marxism.”
Written in 1951, this was one of the last works published before Stalin’s death in 1953. In it, he engages with a number of theoretical and practical issues, some of which are still the subject of controversy on the left.
One of the main theoretical debates was on whether the law of value still operated within a socialist economy. Some economists claimed that Karl Marx in Das Kapital had only meant it to apply to capitalist exchange, but Stalin insisted that it still operated under a socialist economy. Nonetheless, he argued that it was a historical and not eternal law and that it would disappear in the second, higher stage of communism. Under socialism, it was necessary to a degree for commodity exchange but as socialism developed and increasingly produced to meet people’s needs, it would gradually be superseded by the law of the plan, of consciously directed and planned production by society to meet needs, of the law of balanced proportionate development of the national economy.
Despite Stalin being clear that the USSR was still at the lower stage of socialism, there is nonetheless some highly interesting discussion about some features of the higher stage of communism, including the abolition of the antitheses between town and county, and between manual and mental labour.
Stalin devotes one chapter to the inevitability of wars between the capitalist countries and argue that war is inherent in imperialism. Although controversial at the time – especially at the dawn of the nuclear age – this hardly seems so in the early 21st century. Looking back to 1945 virtually every decade saw war and destruction involving one or more of the imperialist powers. Stalin talks of the importance of the peace movements in various countries being potentially;
“able to prevent a particular war or preserve a particular peace, to force out one or other bellicose government in favour of a temporarily more peaceful one – but these are only temporary palliatives – although very good in themselves – to eliminate war it is necessary to eliminate imperialism.”
*Unity of the working class against fascism Report
Delivered to the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, Georgi Dimitrov’s Unity of the Working Class against Fascism (1935) marked an important shift in Communist thinking about fascism. With the increasing threat of international fascism, Communists in different countries were to develop a broader united or popular front against fascism rather than condemning Social Democrats as ‘social fascists.’ Dimitrov had gained international praise when he defended himself and his Communist beliefs after being arrested and put on trial by the Nazis in 1933. He then went on to become the General Secretary of the Communist International in 1935 and, after the war, leader of Bulgaria.
As Dimitrov’s Unity of the Working Class against Fascism makes clear, the new emphasis on a popular front meant Communists had to examine the conditions which gave rise to fascism (or might escalate it further) that were specific to a given country and tackle the threat accordingly. In Britain, Dimitrov’s speech sparked off a remarkable period of popular front cultural activity led by Communists. The history of the evolution of homegrown radical and democratic traditions (e.g., Peasants’ Revolt, English Revolution, Chartism) was foregrounded and connected with struggles against capitalism and fascism in the present through, for instance, poetry, music, pageants, theatre, novels, and history writing.
How do we know what we know? How can we be sure that what’s in our heads corresponds to external reality? For millenia philosophers have debated these issues. There are two broad schools: empiricists who maintain that sense impressions – what we see, feel, hear, taste and smell – are all that we know for sure; and rationalists who believe that only the concepts in our brains are real.
Mao’s essay shows how dialectical materialism cuts through this false dichotomy. Before there were words there was action – practice. Humans learned about the material world by acting to change things in it, first in order to survive, later for all sorts of social and cultural ends. Practice is the test of truth. Imagine some early human having the idea of a stone axe for chopping down trees. They tried it out; if the tree fell, their idea corresponded to material reality; they now knew some of the qualities of the axe and the tree. But if it didn’t fall, they had to think again.
Drawing mainly on Lenin’s philosophical writings, Mao expounds in detail the Marxist view of knowledge as the ever-changing unity of theory and practice.
If you want to change the world, you’ll want to understand the general process of change, and especially how new qualities emerge in the course of that process. Dialectics is the theory of change Contradiction is the heart of dialectics, and the struggle between opposing forces is the driver of change. In1937 Mao Zedong wrote a whole essay On Contradiction. The Communist Party he led was then fighting a guerrilla war against the Japanese invaders and the Chinese “nationalists”. Mao was determined that Communist cadres should be armed with a proper grasp of Marxist principles. Some of the terms he uses may be unfamiliar. He refers to the two aspects of a contradiction rather than to the opposites or tendencies that are more common in Marxist texts. Naturally, Mao’s examples of contradiction are taken from the China of his time. The challenge for British readers today is to apply the Marxist principles expounded by Mao to our own times and places.