When I first got involved in the newly reborn US socialist movement, I was inspired to read. Marxist theory, labor and social movement history, overviews of working-class parties from around the world — I knew that there was an incredible amount of knowledge just sitting around on bookshelves that my comrades and I could use to be better organizers. I quickly ran into one problem, though: years of social media, TV, memes, group chats, and video games have melted my brain, making sustained reading a herculean challenge.
So I can sympathize with the claim I’ve heard occasionally among left activists: that while organizing and action is essential for socialists, and effective political communication like making memes is important, too, expecting such activists to study Marxist theory is somehow elitist. This view, however, would be baffling to the millions of poor and working people all around the world since the late nineteenth century who found inspiration and guidance in Marxism as they built massive movements for social transformation.
In fact, at the height of mass socialist movements in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Marxist theorists worked closely with countless factory workers to distribute radical literature. Those theorists saw this as one of their movement’s primary tasks. Their faith in the power of reading and education made Marxists distinct — not for their elitism, but for their faith in the intellectual, organizational, and political capacities of the working masses. Reading was about workers’ self-empowerment, not their subjugation.
Revolutionary Reading Rainbow
In Old Gods, New Enigmas, Mike Davis explains, “reading ‘ignited insurrections in the minds of workers.’ …The rapid growth of the labor and socialist press in the last quarter of the century nourished an increasingly sophisticated political world view.” Not only could these supposedly uneducated masses read, but poor workers put theory into practice to expand freedom: in many European countries, it was nineteenth-century socialist workers, not bourgeois liberals, who fought and died for “bourgeois” democratic rights like free elections and freedom of association.
Radicals fought especially for a free press, since the sharing of ideas was essential to constructing working-class movements for political and social equality. As Davis writes, “the emergence of mass socialist parties toward the end of the nineteenth century would have been unimaginable without the dramatic growth of the workers’ press (ninety socialist dailies in Germany alone!) and the counter-narrative of contemporary history that it presented.”
Of course, not everyone read Marx’s Capital. Much of the literature Davis is referring to was shorter-form newspapers and pamphlets. But that did not mean that all workers could not be exposed to and wrestle with Marxist ideas.
Take Russian Marxist Vera Zasulich, who Lars Lih quotes in Lenin Rediscovered as explaining why it was important to create theoretically sophisticated literature for worker-activists: “Not everybody in the worker milieu reads books, pamphlets, newspapers, but the concepts [contained therein], assimilated by their comrades who do read them, penetrate gradually into the heads of the non-readers as well.”
This is why Marxist activists in turn-of-the-century Russia insisted that there was no need to dumb down or hide socialist ideas for workers. Instead, Marxists saw their responsibility as engaging workers in wide-ranging strategic debates and developing comprehensive political analysis, not limited to the factory or economic issues nearest-at-hand.
Referring to accounts of workers’ frustrations with over-simplified and apolitical literature, Lenin wrote in 1902 that workers “want to know everything that others know, [they] want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event.”
In response to another socialist’s proposal for a separate and vulgarized “literature for workers,” Lenin went on to argue, as paraphrased by Lih, that “these attempts to create ‘worker’ newspapers perpetuate the absurd division into a worker movement and an [intelligentsia] movement (a division created in the first place by the myopia of certain [socialist intellectuals]).”
This division would mean that, insofar as workers were involved in socialist revolution, they were to be manipulated and prodded into action by well-read intellectuals, used like a battering ram to bring down the old order and to make way for a utopia borne from the heads of the intelligentsia. Such an instrumental view of working-class agency goes directly against a key principle of Marxist politics: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”
This is not to say that books alone were sufficient for masses of workers to develop the capacities for self-emancipation, far from it. But Marxist literature and agitation was seen as a necessary ingredient for workers to draw the right lessons from the heady experiences of practical politics.
The Shotgun Marriage of Theory and Practice
Zasulich’s conversion to the Marxist strategy is telling. A generation earlier, she subscribed to a different strategy: individual terrorism. In 1878, Zasulich put her money where her mouth was and shot General Trepov, an infamously abusive agent of Russia’s tsarist autocracy. Incredibly, Zasulich was acquitted by a sympathetic jury after she used the trial to draw attention to the abuses of Trepov and the government.
But such high-profile assassinations carried out by small groups of radical intellectuals failed to get revolutionary results. In exile in Switzerland, Zasulich came into contact with Marxists who, inspired by the early successes of the German socialist movement, denounced terrorism and advocated for a strategy of mass working-class politics.
Based on the covert activity of an educated few, the Marxists argued, terrorism was elitist and ineffective. Zasulich was won over instead to believe that workers’ own mass activity, informed by Marxist theory, was to be the source of their own liberation. So converted, Zasulich co-founded the first Russian Marxist organization and set to work translating Marx’s works into Russian.
The younger Lenin joined Zasulich in the 1890s. But given tsarist repression, Russian Marxists faced incredible difficulty getting the good word out to the working class. Davis writes that this is why “the underground press played an even more important function [in Russia], with papers passed from hand to hand or read aloud when no foreman or spy was around.”
Building an effective and nationally networked system for the underground press, as a predecessor to a united Russian Marxist party, is the focus of Lenin’s famous 1902 book, What Is To Be Done?. To make this dream a reality, activists risked arrest, Siberian exile, or even death to carry books and newspapers printed abroad across the Russian borders and into the hands and brains of Russian workers.
Far from elitist, this was pragmatic. Without access to coverage of strikes and protests as well as international Marxist debates over strategy and tactics, worker activists were condemned to parochial politics, ineffective strategies, and likely to succumb to the pressure of enormously more prevalent ideas from the political and cultural institutions of the government or liberal bourgeois reformers.
Marxist ideas did spread far and wide. And they informed socialist practice. In his famous book Hammer and Hoe: Communists in Alabama During the Great Depression, Robin D.G. Kelley describes a conversation with Lemon Johnson, one of the black leaders of an American Communist Party-led Alabama sharecroppers union. When Kelley asked how they were able to win some of their demands in a 1935 cotton pickers strike, Johnson “pulled out a dog-eared copy of V.I. Lenin’s What Is to Be Done and a box of shotgun shells” and said, “That’s how we did it. Theory and practice.”
To all those concerned with the “elitism” of reading Marxist theory, I think Lemon Johnson and Vera Zasulich, if they were still around today, might reply: are you so arrogant as to think that you have figured out the complexities of the capitalist world and the proper strategies for transforming it all by yourself? Then, as organizers who took the effective communication of socialist ideas seriously, they would probably try to turn this idea into a meme.