Friendly rebuttal to “Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO”

Response to this article.

This is not about how you are all traitors or anything, or about democracy.  Instead it is about idealism and ideological radicalization.

I 100% agree that Trotskyism has a deep, problematic element of thinking “the exact right ideas” will magically solve everything.  My disagreement is more about what is going on here-and-now today in the USA.  Some people in Renewal and other post-ISO formations have argued that the ISO is overconfident, expects too much, and overestimates class consciousness.  They mock the ISO’s perspective that society is undergoing an ideological radicalization.

This seems to be a big difference between me and a lot of the post-ISO scene.  Actually I think the ISO is dead-on accurate about that particular issue, and the things holding them up are other problems I’ve written about elsewhere.

To be blunt, if someone can’t see that society is going through a tremendously noticeable leftward ideological shift, they don’t have a very good nose for sensing the politics of the masses.  I recommend that people attempt to explain the ISO’s lack of growth in some other fashion than “the masses aren’t ready,” because they really are.



A difference between deterministic materialism and dialectical materialism is a recognition that multiple factors and layers of reality exist in a continual state of mutually influencing each other.

Marx: “It’s not consciousness that determines life, but rather life determines consciousness.”

Here a theme is established: matter is the base, consciousness is the superstructure.  Agreed.

However, the mutually-influencing relationship between base and superstructure is left unexplored by this quote alone.  If we are truly materialists, isn’t consciousness part of matter (in this case “life”)?  Consciousness certainly exists.  We are not reductionists.  Actually many Marxists have a tough time at precisely this point — they are unconsciously reductionist, they believe that consciousness is not real, that it is just some kind of illusion.  But even an illusion is real, as an illusion.  Consciousness exists.

If life determines consciousness, but consciousness is a sub-category of life, doesn’t this mean that sometimes consciousness determines consciousness, or that consciousness determines consciousness in collusion with a number of other material factors?

This is really hard for many Marxists to swallow.  The idea of consciousness arising out of itself smacks of idealism.  The thing to remember is that if you are truly a dialectical materialist, consciousness is material.  This means that consciousness arising out of consciousness is merely a subcategory of matter arising out of a subcategory matter.  There’s nothing mystical about it, nothing idealist.

Try this Marx quote on:

“The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”  (Introduction to Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

This means that the ideas in people’s heads matter, and they become all the more important as those ideas take on a mass character, or as they become an idea shared in common at a large scale.  Mass consciousness, like any other consciousness, is material.

We must be honest about what this means — the line between base and superstructure gets very blurry.  There is a chicken-and-egg causality.  This is part of why I have engaged with Maoism and the writings of Kasama Project, despite my being irreconcilably hostile to authoritarian regimes — Maoism is a form of Marxism which problematizes the base-superstructure relationship.

Indeed, this is not the only time Marx blurs the lines between base and superstructure!  In discussing how the state is used to found capitalism through the brutal violence of “primitive accumulation,” Marx writes in Capital,

These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g. the colonial system.  But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to short then transition.  Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.  It is itself an economic power.

So it’s not just consciousness which acts as a superstructure which can turn around and transform the base.  Politics and the state are also superstructural, and yet can also qualitatively change the base.  Again, this is the dividing line between dialectical materialism and deterministic materialism.



Some post-ISO folk have asserted that opinion polls are not a good indicator of class consciousness.  The article I’m responding to instead states that class consciousness is really only best measured by things that people do, like in belonging to unions, or striking.  In this model, opinion polls are thrown out while strike statistics are a big focus.

However, this fails to reflect that having a militant, combative working class is practically half the battle — truly, it is a revolution already half-won.  We need to figure out creative ways of getting to that halfway mark which may or may not rely on people’s ability to act in the workplace.  We may have to channel people’s radicalization through other outlets, such as solidarity networks or militant electoral campaigns.  These, too, are forms of class struggle.

To reduce the Marxist perspective on how people form ideas down to “people learn by doing” is an oversimplification.  What about what people experience?  If more people have money difficulties than they used to, does this not force a sharp consciousness of economics and inequality onto the population?  Isn’t a downwardly-mobile middle class actually class-conscious in the extreme?  Certain statistics have argued that this demographic is who formed the ranks of Occupy.

The article in question says, “people generally act beyond their consciousness and only begin to understand their actions later.”  That’s part of the equation of how learning happens in a materialist model, but it’s not the entirety.  It also quotes Gramsci (and it’s a good quote):

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless is an understanding of the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed (Prison Notebooks).

When discussing the “practical activity” which seems to have a more radical ideology “implicit” in it, Gramsci is not necessarily discussing open class conflict only, or even primarily.  In the Manifesto, Marx describe class struggle as “an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.”

What’s being discussed here is not anything related to something so explicit as strike statistics.  Actually, merely suffering the daily grind of capitalism, and experiencing its economic crises, is what causes the leftward drift in mass consciousness.  The “practical activity” of the “man-in-the-mass” includes going to work every day, getting laid off due to restructuring, hired later for the same job at a lower salary, or unemployment, or a crappy service job with total insecurity.  When I read it, the primary meaning of “practical activity” in Gramsci’s quote seems to be daily work, not open struggle.

People experience class struggle every day — but not on the picket line.  Unfortunately, class struggle includes the savage one-sided class war where we all get our asses handed to us by the rich.  This structures workers’ daily economic activity.  We learn through doing, not just in the sense of learning by fighting, but also learning through the struggle for survival.  And beyond merely learning by doing is learning from material experience, which may seem more passive, but is nonetheless a real material factor on consciousness, which often poses a radical alternative to capitalist mis-education.


The tragedy of a perspective focused on union density or strike statistics is that it can badly miss opportunities to tap into the class anger which is everywhere by more or less pretending it isn’t there, or disregarding it as some ephemeral wave not grounded in real practice.  Many people have low confidence in the workplace, but they are very willing to take political action in arenas where they believe they can win, or where they do not face the excruciating vulnerabilities of being at the mercy of a boss.

So yes, opinion polls matter, because ideas are a material force, and because people learn through experience too, not through action alone.  Repressed social tension mutates, and returns.  It’s like a hydra — cut off one head, another pops up somewhere else.  Don’t expect to predict its form.

Anyway, this is written in a spirit of comradeship.  I hope it’s been fun.

One thought on “Friendly rebuttal to “Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO”

  1. Pingback: A friendly reply to Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal” | Red Atlanta

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