Engels on Ideology and the Bolshevik Ideologisation of ‘Democratic Centralism’
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Every ideology, however, once it has arisen, develops in connection with the given concept-material, and develops this material further otherwise it would not be an ideology, that is, occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws. That the material life conditions of the persons inside whose heads this thought process goes on in the last resort determine the course of this process remains of necessity unknown to these persons, for otherwise their would be an end to all ideology.
[Engels. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p. 618.]
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. He imagines false or seeming motive forces. Because it is a process of thought he derives its form as well as its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material, which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, and does not investigate further for a more remote source independent of thought; Indeed this is a matter of course for him because as all action is mediated by thought, it appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought.
[Letter from Engels to F. Mehring, July 14, 1893. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p. 690.]
The ‘ideologisation’ of ‘agency’ or ‘organisation’ begins post-Marx. With the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals (Bernstein, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, etc). Today, we see it, for example, continuing ad nauseam in the ‘Vanguardism’ of the sects in their mantra of the so-called ‘democratic centralist’ party. This is why the sects, parties, etc, are “Marxist ideologists” but, by being so, they have divorced themselves from Marx. Every individual who joins these groups receives an ideological “introduction to” and “development of” Marx which is no introduction or development at all. It is the ossification of Marx and socialist thought. The mantra of the ‘democratic centralist’ party is part of this ideological introduction.
Marx is the real conscious connection of the thinker to the existent and changing “material life conditions” and to the “real motive forces impelling” people and classes in their life and struggles. In order to grasp and explain the forms of thinking corresponding to these existent conditions and struggles, he must, therefore, “investigate further for a more remote source” i.e. investigate the specific character of these existent conditions and relations and the struggles arising from them. The organisational needs of the proletariat and their practical articulation are, accordingly, increasingly hindered the more that thought ceases to move beyond the ideological in thinking. For the ideological in thought continues to contaminate living thought with the unexorcised ghosts of the dead conceptual refuse of the past. The conception of the “need” for a ‘democratic centralist revolutionary party’ in the left-wing groups is a lucid example of this ‘spanner in the works’ of the “revolutionary thinker” and within the contemporary so-called “democratic centralist revolutionary parties”. It is their mantra, incantation, dogma, their ideological appropriation.
Lenin and Trotsky did the proletariat the greatest disservice when they insisted on the ‘democratic centralist’ form (at the founding conferences of the Third International) for the organisation of the revolutionary agency of the proletariat. Trotsky stayed with it unto death. Their insistence was, once again, lucidly ideological. And today, the spellbound sectarian groups have kept it “alive” as a cryogenically-frozen corpse. They remain stuck and lost in the swamp of the ideological. And why? Because the ideological loop in which they are caught (and whose existence was nourished by the three decades of post-war Keynesian expansion of the capital order into the 1970s) has no real contact with the “material life conditions” and “real motive forces” to which Engels refers i.e. they have divorced themselves theoretically and politically from the altered conditions of capitalist globalisation and its maturing structural crisis. They are expecting “reality” to catch up with their “conception” but, ironically, “reality” has left it behind decades ago. They remain sects dominated by bureaucratism and ideology which confront the altered conditions as a fundamentalist religious doctrine confronts the social realities of secularism.
Effectively, the ideological position of Lenin and Trotsky in relation to organisation was, as Meszaros writes, a “direct ideological appeal to the model character of the Russian revolution” and the implicit decree for the articulation and application of the conception of agency in the Russian Revolution in relation to the prevailing historical conditions in the most advanced capitalist centres at the time (Western Europe, Japan, USA).
And it was indeed ‘ideological’. In what sense? Any attempt to appropriate or develop a conception independently of, and divorced from, actually existent historical conditions or, of and from, a grasp of the historical conditions under and within which the conception emerged and developed is nothing more than an ‘ideological’ misappropriation or mis-deployment of that same conception. In the course of such an ‘appropriation’ or ‘deployment’, the conception itself is emptied of its historical content and significance. The dogma of democratic centralism found in the Third and Fourth Internationals was akin to demanding the cultivation of olive trees on the windswept moors of Yorkshire. It was the entrenchment of a programmatic alpha and omega.
It was a method of ‘appropriation’ which was alien to Marx himself who was not an ‘ideologist’, contrary to what the ideologues of capital, its media chatterers and the left groups and sects tediously say and write, day in day out. Both Marx and Engels sought to explain the origins of ideology but they did not accomplish that by ‘ideological’ means. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and the rest are ideologies. Indeed, it could be argued that most of Marx -“ism” is ideological. But the actual work of Marx is not ideology. This ideologisation of Marx is what passes for ‘Marx’ in the different aspects of the many Marx-“isms”. Lenin, here, is actually (and most surprisingly) divorcing the necessary form of agency from the historical conditions within which it actually germinates and grows. This became clear in the work and programmes of both the Third International and later in Trotsky’s Fourth International. It clearly demonstrated that both Lenin and Trotsky – post 1917 – had lost contact with Marx in this regard.
Lenin’s conception of revolutionary agency was fundamentally influential throughout the 20th century and even today. His conception was taken out of the historical conditions within which it was made necessary and then attempts were made to graft the conception into different conditions in other parts of the world where the conditions of its origination did not exist. His conception of revolutionary agency was developed in the conditions of struggle in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. But beyond that, in the more advanced capitalist countries, its relevance was questionable to say the least. The fact that it was necessary in the conditions of Tsarist Russia did not necessarily render it an organisational pre-requisite for other parts of the capitalist world at the time where more advanced conditions prevailed . But Lenin’s ‘centralist party’ conception distilled over into the work of the Third and Fourth Internationals. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, the conditions in Russia were worlds away from those in fully developing, capitalist western Europe and the United States. And this means these more mature conditions were not necessarily conducive to Lenin’s conception of agency and required different forms of agency even at that time.
The ideologically-thinking individual does not grasp his thinking as ‘ideological’. Therefore this form of thinking serves and operates to conceal its own ideological nature: ideological thought cannot grasp its own ideological nature simply because it is ideological. In this respect, this side of thought remains unconscious of its own ideological nature. In regard to the varying conditions in different parts of the globe at the time of the Russian Revolution – and the organisational response to those spectrum of conditions by the proletariat – the Bolsheviks had their feet, after 1917 at least, firmly rooted on ideological ground.