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Proletarian Self-Emancipation

Ma:rxlsm and
pl’oletal’ian sel’emancipalion
Norman Geras
I claim no novelty for these ideas. Some of them
are discussed in a recent article by Hal Draper. 1
They are treated at greater length, and in greater
depth, in Michael Lowy’s book on Marx’s theory of
revolution. 2 Going back to Marx himself, in 1864,
in the preamble to the rules of the First Interna
tiona1, he formulates the principles of selfemancipation in the foloowing terms: ‘The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by
the working classes themselves.’ On a number of
occasions after this, he and Engels explicitly
reaffirm the principle,3 and in the subsequent
history of Marxist controversy it is espoused and
defended, in one context or another, by Lenin, by
Luxemburg and by Trotsky,4 to name only these.

So the principle is old and has been discussed
many times.

I present i t again for discussion here
because its implications are far-reaching.

go beyond the simple affirmation of a libertarian
commitment to dimensions of Marxist thought which
are at once epistemological, political and sociological. In other words, the principle of selfemancipation is central, not incidental, to
historical materialism. As such, it provides a
useful focus for the consideration of problems
germane to a body of thought which I take to be of
interest to radical philosophers.

If we subsume under the heading of radical
philosophy such thinkers as have envisaged a fundamental transformation of the social order, then we
find that one of radical philosophy’s traditional
concerns has been the project to transform men
themselves. Without the transformation of men, of
their attitudes, abilities and habits, the radical
alteration of social relations and political institutions must prove unviable – an empty or dangerous
utopia beyond human nature’s eternal constraints.

Projects of social transformation, then, rest on a
contrast between human actualities ahd human potentialities, and they generally offer a conception,
however minimal, of the process by which the
potentialities are to be actualized. Everything
hinges on the manner in which this process is

I take Rousseau as an example. No need to labour
the point that for him what men are and what they
could be are two different things. The entire
difficulty resides in the attempt to bridge the gap
between the two. A passage from The Social Contract
testifies to this difficulty:



new-born people to relish wise maxims

of policy and to pursue the fundamental rules

of statecraft, it would be necessary that the
effect should become the cause; that the
social mind, which should be the product of
such institution, should prevail even at the
institution of society; and that men should
be, before the formation of laws, what t~ose
laws alone can make them. S
Translating freely: men are the products of their
social circumstances, unfit to found society anew
so long as they are corrupted by imperfect institutions; they can only recognize the need for, and
acquire the ability to sustain, social change if
they have already benefitted from the influences of
such change. They are caught in a vicious circle
which closes to them the prospect of self-emancipation. Rousseau’s solution to this problem is the


Legislator who, putting his wisdom at the service of
ordinary mortals, creates the framework of institutions and rules they need and teaches them what
they can and shou’ld be. But he can only do this
because he is wise. And he is only wise because he
escapes the determinism of corrupting social
circumstances, that is, Comes from outside the
circle of ignorance which binds other men, as an
external aqent of transformation. I shall give two
more examples. Buonarroti:

The experience of the French Revolution •••
••• sufficiently demonstrated that a
people whose opinions have been ,formed by a
regime of inequality and despotism is hardly
suitable, at the beginning of a regenerative
revolution, to elect those who will direct it
and carry it out to completion. r.his difficult
task can only be borne by wise and courageous
citizens who, consumed by love of country and
love for humanity, have long pondered on the
causes of public evils, have rid themselves of
common prejudice. and vice, have advanced the
enlightenment of their contemporaries, and,
despising gold and worldly grandeur, have sought
their happiness ••• in assuring the triumph of
equality. 6

To want to wait, as it is usually suggested one
should, until all are suitably enlightened, would
mean to abandon the thing altogether; because
never does an entire people achieve the same
level of enlightenment, at least not, so long as
inequality and the struggle of private interests
within society continue to·exist. 7
And Weitling goes on to compare the dictator who
organizes the workers with a duke who commands his

I leave aside here the traditional ethical
objection concerning the pursuit of libertarian ends
by authoritarian means. There are other, more
powerful objections to this sort of view.

One may
be called sociological/political: social reality is
held to be inert, having the power to shape its
human agents into acceptance or submission; yet
against this immense power, the power of a Legislator, of a few ‘wise and courageous citizens’, is
held to be effective. Another is epistemological:

the conditions for a critical perspective on
reality are denied, but some, again a few, find
their way to the trutp for all that.

In fact,
this sort of view combines the most mechanistic
materialism and determinism (men are the mere
effects of their circumstances) with the purest
idealism and voluntarism (a few escape this potent
conditioning to transform human circumstances at a
stroke). To introduce here the distinction between
leaders and masses: the masses are always passive
and acted upon – in one case, by the SOCiety which
shapes them, in the other, by the leaders who
enlighten them and liberate them.

In one of his more equivocal pronouncements,
Althusser has told us that ‘ the . whole Marxist
tradition has refused to say that it is ‘man’ who
makes history. ,a Well, one can quarrel about what
is and what is not the Marxist ‘tradition’. But
the assertion of this truth by Althusser conceals
another, no less significant, and theoretically
indigestible for the Althusserians; and that is
that all of the greatest Marxist thinkers and
revolutionary militants from Marx to the present
day have said, more or less explicitly, that it, is
men who make history albeit on the basis of
objective conditions which they have to take as
given. 9 The thought, admittedly general and
abstract in this form, is nevertheless decisive,
for it represents Marx’s break with the whole
problematic I have just surveyed, and it informs
all of Marx’s more concrete and specific theoretical
constructions. I shall make only brief reference to
the Theses on Feuerbach since they are well known.

Men are neither passive effects nor omnipotent
wills, but at once the subjects and objects of a

practice which generates and transforms social and
ideological structures, and transforms men themselves in the process. In Marx’s words: ‘The
coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of
human activity or self-changing can be conceived
and rationally understood only as revolutionary
practice. ,10
The same thought is expressed in
The German Ideology.l1 In any case, this breaks the
circle which cuts men off from the possibility of
self-transformation and, doing so, liberates them
from the need for liberators.

But for Marx, the agent of social transformation
in the current epoch, the vehicle of socialist revolution, is not, abstractly, man-in-gene”ral, but the
proletarian masses. If there is any validity in
Althusserian anti-humanism, this seems to me to be it
and to exhaust it. The problem of the transformation
and emancipation of man is, in the first instance,
the problem of the transformation and emancipation
of the proletariat. This process involves, beyond
the capture of political power (the dictatorship of
the proletariat) and all that follows from it, what
broadly speaking we might call the education of the
proletariat itself. Education in several senses: the
throwing off of all habits of deference acquired by
virtue of its subordinate position in capitalist
society and reinforced by the dominant ideology of
that society; liberation from all traces of that
ideology, recognition of its real class interests and
of the means necessary for the realization of those
interests; the acquisition of confidence in its own
ability to organize and rule, or experience in
organization and in the making of political decisions
– such confidence and experience being more or less
denied to the proletariat by the political apparatus
of the bourgeois state. In other words, what I have
called the education of the proletariat is simply the
process by which it acquires an autonomous class consciousness and through which it forms autonomous
class organizations up to and including the institutions of dual power and of the future proletarian
state. And this education of the proletariat is
part and parcel of the socialist revolution which
would be unthinkable without it. How is such
education acquired?

I shall quote at length from Marx. The first
passage is from The German Ideology:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this
communist consciousness, and for the success of
the cause itself, the alteration of men on a
mass scale is necessary, an alteration which
can only take place in a practical movement, a
revolution; this revolution is necessary,
therefore, not only because the ruling class
cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also
because the class overthrowing it can only in a
revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the
muck of ages and become fitted to found society
anew. 12
The second is from The Civil War in France:

The working class ••• know that in order to
work out their own emancipation, and along with
it that higher form to which present society
is irresistibly tending by its own economical
agencies, they will have to pass through long
struggles, through a series of historic
processes, transforming circumstances and men. 13
The proletariat transforms and educates itself in
the p~ocess of its revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalist society. The education of the
proletariat is essentially a self-education. Lest
this should provoke the old and facile charge of
spontaneism I shall make some necessary qualifications.

The truth contained in so-called spontaneist
versions of Marxism seems to me to be this: the
spontaneous disposition of the working class to
struggle, at least periodically, not merely for this
or that partial gain, but against the very roots of
its exploitation and oppression, against capitalist
society itself, is the necessary but not sufficient
condition of socialism. It is merely another way of

saying that capitalist society embodies the objective
contradictions which create the historical possibility (and I say no more than ‘possibility’) of
socialism. If it is denied, then socialism becomes
simply one ethical ideal amongst others, or the
theoretical project of Marxist intellectuals, with
no purchase on reality and as powerless against it
as Rousseau’s Legislator and its variants.

course, just such a view of socialism has been and
is widely held, from Eduard Bernstein to the countless contemporary opponents of revolutionary

I limit myself to saying here that if
that view is correct, then Marxism is false.

It is
not surprising, therefore, that Lenin’s thesis in
What is to be done? (that the spontaneous movement
of the working class creates trade-unionism and only
trade-unionism which is ‘precisely working-class
bourgeois politics’) ,14 used as a pole~ical weapon
against the Economists, is a thesis he soon
abandoned. 1 5
At the same time, the emphasis that the education and emancipation of the proletariat are
essentially processes of self-education and selfemancipation in no way contradicts the Marxist and
Leninist theory of the party. For Marx and Lenin,
the party is nothing other than the instrument of
the working class, its own organization for struggle;
it is not, for them, yet another external agent of
liberation above or superior to the masses.

takes its rationale from various needs: the need for
a ccmbat organization to co-ordinate and lead the
struggles of a class whose spontaneous and fragmented initiatives are necessary but not, by
themselves, sufficient for revolutionary success;
the need to assemble and prepare politically the
most advanced sections of that class, the latter not
being a homogeneous entity with regard to consciousness and organization, and such prior preparation
being indispensable if truly mass upsurges, when
they occur, are not to be wasted, dissipated and
defeated; the need to centralize and consolidate the
historical experience, lessons and knowledge gained
by the working class from its previous struggles.

But even the relationship between the party and the
non-party masses should not be thought as purely
unilateral, such that the former educates and
emancipates the latter. For, the party can only
have an effective influence over the masses outside
it, if these masses are themselves drawn in to
political struggle and learn through their o~m
experience the lessons conveyed to them in propaganda and agitation. And this is to say nothing of
what the party itself must learn from them in order
to demonstrate its capacity for successful leadership.

In any case, the relationship is reciprocal
and political rather than unilateral and pedagogic.

A further important qualification: the emphasis
on self-education does not of course mean, for Marx,
that the working class movement has no need of
intellectuals, and of intellectuals in particular who
come from other classes than the working class.

There is, for example, a fairly well known passage
in The Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels
explicitly speak of a section of the bourgeoisie,
and of bourgeois ideologists, ‘going over’ to the
proletariat, ‘joining’ the revolutionary class. 16
In a less well known text of 1879, they reiterate
this point:

It is an inevitable phenomenon, rooted in the
course of development, that people from what
have hitherto been the ruling classes should
also join the militant proletariat and supply
it with educative elements. We clearly stated
this in the Manifesto. But ••• if people of
‘this kind from other classes join the proletarian movement, the first condition must be that
they should not bring any remnants of bourgeois,
petty-bourgeois, etc., prejudices with them but
should whole-heartedly adopt the proletarian
outlook. 17
So I have no intention here of trying to spirit away
the massive theoretical labour by which Marx and
subsequent Marxists yroduced a body of knowledge


which might orient and guide the struggle of the
working class. It would be simple naivete to imagine
that workers could acquire that knowledge out of the
experience of political struggle alone. However,
it is this same body of knowledge that Marx refers
to when he talks in the last quotation of the
‘proletarian outlook’~ i t is this same body of
knowledge that is said (in the afterword to the
second German edition of Capital) to ‘represent’

the proletariati18 and i t is this same body of
knowledge that is said (in The Poverty of Philosophy)
to be a ‘product’ of the historical movement of
the proletariat. 19 By which I take Marx to mean
the following: the political struggles of the
proletariat which aim at the destruction of capitalist society are the condition of possibility of the
science of Marxism which comprehends and explains
capitalist society as one soci~l formation amongst
others, having a historical origin and a historical
term. Without those political struggles, without
the class interests which they aim to realize,
without the commitment of revolutionary intellectuals
to those interests and their participation in those
struggles, without the contrarlictions of capitalism,
Marxism would not have been produced. In that sense
Marxism is a class science. 20 Only those who fail
to make the necessary logical distinction between
the sociological question of the genesis of thought
and the epistemological question of its truth will
take this last assertion for an endorsement of
relativism, which it is not.

To sum up on this point: Marx claimed to have
elaborated a science. Whether that claim is
accepted or not, it is important to note that he did
not claim to have elaborated it outside, or
independently of, the working class movement and to
have brought it to this movement in a unilateral way.

This claim was made for him by others, by Kautsky
and by Lenin (though in Lenin’s case it was, again,
a polemical weapon against Economism and not typical
of his thought).21 The claim seems to me to be
idalist and incompatible with historical materialism.

I make one more point and then conclude.

The above arguments notwithstanding ,it is true
that, within Marxist thought, the view of the masses
as the total objects of their circumstances recurs.

Two examples. The first is Althusser, for whom men
are nothing more than the supports/effects of their
social, political and ideological relations. But
if they are nothing more than this, how can they
possibly destroy and transform these relations?

The answer is, as it has to be, by the power of a
knowledge (Theoretical Practice) brought to them
from elsewhere. The second is Marcuse: the working
class integrated, manipulated, indoctrinated, its
revolutionary potential contained, submitting to
exploitation and oppression willingly, and failing
to perceive, because unable to perceive, where its
real interests lie. It is no accident that Marcuse
keeps returning to the notion of ‘educational dictatorship’, only to reject it each time as
unacceptable. 22
I conclude with a quotation fram Marx and Engels,
fram the ‘Circular Letter’ of 1879:

When the International was formed we
expressly formu1ated.the battle cry: The
emancipation of the working class must be
the work of the working class itse2f. We
cannot, therefore, co-operate with people
who openly state that the workers are too
uneducated to emancipate themselves and must
first be freed from above by philanthropic
big bourgeois and petty bourgeois. 23


‘The Principle of Self-Eman dpation in Marx” ad
Engels’, in R. Miliband and J. Saville (eds.)
The Socialist Register 1971, Merlin Press,
London, pp.8l-109.


La Theorie De La Revolution Chez Le Jeune Marx,
Francois Maspero, Paris, 1970.



K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, 3 Vols,
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, Vol.l, p.104,
Vol.2, p.19, Vol.3, pp.20, 94.


V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, 3 vols, Progress
Publishers, Moscow, 1967, Vol.l, p.468~ R.

Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings
(ed. R. Looker), Jonathan Cape, London, 1972,
pp.159, 272, 278~ L. Trotsky, Their Morals and
Ours, Merit Publishers, New York, 1966, p.42.


The Social Contract, Book 11, Chapter VII.


Cited in Lowy,


Ibid., pp.90-9l.



cit. p.85.

L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other
NLB, London, 1971, p.24.


See: K. Marx, Capital, FLPH, Mos~w, 1961-2,
Vol.l, p.372, and K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected
Works, Vol.l, p.13~ R. Luxemburg, Selected
Political Writings, p.194; L. Trotsky, History
of the Russian Revolution, Sphere Books, London,
1967, Vol.3, p.158, and My Life, Grosset &
Dunlap, New York, 1960, pp.396-7~ Venceremos:

The Speeches and Writings of Ernesto Che Guevara
(ed. J. Gerassi), Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
London, 1968, p.293~ Mao Tse-Tung, Selected
Works, FLP, Peking, 1967, VQ1.4, p.454~ ••• etc.


Third thesis, in K. Marx and F. Engels, The
qerman Ideology, Lawrence & Wishart, London,


Ibid., pp.229-30.

1965, p.646.


Ibid., p.86


Selected Works, vol.2, p.224.


Selected Works, Vol.l, pp.176, 122


See, for example, Selected Works, Vol.l, pp.458,
542, 570, and Collected Works, Vol.13, pp.1OO-10B.


Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.l, p.117.


Ibid., Vol.3, pp.92-93.


Capital, Vol.l, p.16


K. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress
Publish~rs, Moscow, 1966, p.109.

Cf. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol.l, pp.4l, 46 and


What the ‘Friends of the People’ are and how
they fight the Social-Democrats, Progress
Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p.197.


Cf., for example~ ‘Correct-revolutionary theory
••• assumes final shape only in close connection
with the practical activity of a truly mass and
truly revolutionary movement.’ Lenin, Selected
Works, Vol.3, p.378.


H. Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, Vintage Books,
New York, 1961, p.206, and One-Dimensional Man,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1964, pp. 6,


Selected Works, vol.3, p.94.

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