The Faces of Economism

The Faces of Economism

[Reprinted from Spartacist #21, Fall 1972]

Revisionism is an attempt to attack the substance of Marxism-Leninism without openly coming into conflict with its great authority. Therefore revisionism often takes the form of maintaining lip-service to traditional Marxist ter­minology but re-defining (usually broadening) certain key concepts in order to smuggle in a different political line. For example the term “self-determination,” which for Lenin simply meant the ability of a nation to establish a separate state, has been transformed, most notably by the Socialist Workers Party, into the thoroughly utopian reformist con­cept of freedom from all oppression (class exploitation, national and racial oppression, sexual oppression, etc.) through separation or even “community control” within U.S. capitalism.

While the term “economism” has not undergone so grotesque a change, it also has been broadened well -beyond its Marxist meaning. For Lenin, the “economists” were a distinct tendency in the Russian socialist movement which held that socialists should concentrate on improving the conditions of working-class life and leave the fight against Czarist absolutism to the liberals. After One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin rarely used the term and referred to similar attitudes as reformism or narrow trade union con­sciousness. Nevertheless the term “economism,” which has become an important part of the contemporary radical vocabulary, need not be restricted to a purely historical category. However it is essential that it not be given a meaning fundamentally subversive to Leninism, i.e. that Lenin’s authority not be put behind ideas alien to Marxism.

Anti-“Economism” as Anti-Materialist Spiritualism

Attacks on “economism” are a frequent rallying cry of petty-bourgeois radicals whose response to labor reformism and working-class backwardness is to reject the working class as the driving force of the revolution. The current popularity of the term probably stems from its widespread use in the Chinese “Cultural Revolution,” where “economism” was identified with a desire for a higher standard of living. “Economist consciousness” was the sin of workers who resisted the “Cultural Revolution”—that is, who were unwill­ing to make the material sacrifices demanded of them by the Maoist faction. The political thrust of the “anti-economism” campaign was evident during the 1967 nationwide railway strike, when Red Guards demanded that railway workers accept a 12% pay cut and disregard standard safety regula­tions. This would have concentrated greater economic surplus in the hands of the Maoist bureaucracy, but would not have significantly benefited the Chinese masses.

It is precisely the anti-materialist spiritual aspects of Maoism—its rejection of the “consumer society” and Khrush­chev’s “goulash communism”—that provides the link between the early New Left of Herbert Marcuse and the later popularity of Third World anarcho-Maoism. The likes of Robin Blackburn of the British New Left Review and Rudi Deutschke of the German SDS can be considered transitional figures.

Anarcho-Maoist attacks on working-class “economism” are similar to Victorian conservative attacks on “the intense selfishness of the lower classes” (the phrase is from Kipling, poet laureate of British imperialism). These attitudes are, generally voiced by genuine reactionaries. Marshal Petain blamed the fall of France on the “love of pleasure of the French common people.” As George Orwell once remarked, this statement is seen in its proper perspective if we compare the amount of pleasure in the life of the average French worker or peasant with Petain’s own!

The anti-Marxist perversion of the term “economism” by the Maoists and their New Left sycophants reflects fear of and contempt for the working masses on the part of petty-bourgeois strata. In the case of the Chinese bureaucra­cy, it is a real fear that the aspirations and organization of the Chinese working class threaten its privileged position. In the case of the Western radical intelligentsia, it is a belief that the social backwardness and cultural narrowness of the working masses threaten its life styles—both bourgeois and “liberated “—and values.

What Is Economism?

In the most general sense, economism is the failure of the working class to embrace its historic role, or in Marx’s,words, failure to realize that the proletariat cannot liberate itself without “destroying all the inhuman conditions of life in contemporary. society.” (The Holy Family) In other words, economism is the failure of the working class, in the absence of revolutionary leadership, to reject bourgeois ideology and place its revolutionary class interests above particular, sec­tional or apparent needs or desires. Concretely, economism manifests itself in competition between groups of workers undercutting or destroying the unity of the entire class, support by the labor movement for its national bourgeoisie, failure to fight racial and sexual oppression, indifference to democratic rights and civil liberties, and a lack of concern for the cultural heritage of mankind (bourgeois culture).

What economism is not is the workers’ strong desire for a higher standard of living. On the contrary, the basis of economism. is the material and cultural oppression of the working class. It is material deprivation, or the fear of it, which causes groups of workers to view their particular and immediate interests as more important than any other consideration. It is social and cultural oppression which causes workers to accept pernicious bourgeois ideologies like nationalism and religion. The struggle to raise the material and cultural level of the workers is essential to the real struggle against economism. The need for a revolutionary transitional program is precisely to ensure that these gains do not come at the expense of other sections of the oppressed but transcend the framework of competition for “a slice of the pie.” Preachments of moral uplift in the labor movement are not a serious fight against economism.

Social-Democratic Reformism and Trade Unionism

There is a strong tendency on the left to identify economism with simple trade unionism and thus to see any concern with the affairs of government as a step away from economism. The Workers League, American affiliate of Gerry Healy’s “International Committee,” presents any strike propaganda containing demands on the government, or raising the slogan of a labor party regardless of its program, as inherently anti-economist. Lenin is sufficiently explicit that economism does not mean merely lack of concern for “politics.” The economism/politics dichotomy demonstrates crude anti-Leninism. In What Is To Be Done? Lenin repeatedly insists:

“Lending ‘the economic struggle itself a political charac­ter’ means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction of trade [union] demands, the improvement of working conditions in each separate trade … by legislative and administrative methods. This is precisely what a trade unions do and have always done …. the phrase ‘lending the economic struggle itself a political character’ means nothing more than the struggle for economic reforms.”

Trade unions are always and necessarily impeded by the bourgeois state. Even the most backward trade union bureaucrats are in favor of reducing legal restrictions on themselves and achieving through government reforms what cannot be attained over the bargaining table.

Social-democratic reformism and simple business union­ism are two forms of economism that usually co-exist peacefully within the labor movement. And when reformism and business unionism do conflict, it is not always “politics” (reformism) that represents the higher form of class struggle. In the U.S. proto-social-democratic, “progressive” unionists (Sidney Hillman, Walter Reuther) have often been less militant in industrial conflicts than straight business unionists (John L. Lewis, Jimmy Hoffa). This is because the “political­ly concerned,” “progressive” union bureaucrats are closely associated with a wing of the Democratic Party, which they don’t want to embarrass by industrial disruption. The “anti-economism” of these politically sensitive union bureaucrats is a facade for sellouts and a cover for seeking bourgeois respectability.


One of the few constant elements in the New Left radicalism of the past ten years has been the denial of the unique and leading role of the organized working class in the socialist revolution. Replacements have been sought in “the wretched of the earth,” the “Third World,” racial and ethnic minorities in countries like the U.S., then the lumpens, students and/or youth dropouts. Recently a spirit of ecumen­ism has made itself felt in radical circles and all oppressed social groups are expected to participate in the revolution on an equal footing.

The strategy is seen as building a coalition of various oppressed groups on a “program” achieved through the multi-lateral trading of demands. For example, if the women’s liberation movement supports the repeal of anti-strike legislation, the unions in turn are expected to support the repeal of anti-abortion laws. The two most developed advocates of coalitionism in the ostensibly Marxist U.S. left are the Socialist Workers Party and the Labor Committe. The SWP projects a coalition largely based on ethnic and sexual groups around a petty-bourgeois utopian program, while the Labor Committee presents a coalition of economically defined groups around a social-democratic program. Thus, the SWP foresees a black, Chicano, women’s, homosexuals’ and workers’ revolution, while the LC looks forward to a trade unionist, unemployed, welfare recipient, white-collar and student soviet.

Its advocates see coalitionism as a means of fighting economism. In actuality, coalitionism is simply another form of economism. It is based on the central theoretical premise of economism—that the working class cannot transcend (as distinct from disregard or deny) its immediate sectional interests and identify its interests with all the oppressed and with the future of humanity. Coalitionism does not seek to transform the consciousness of workers, but simply to gain their acquiescence for some “other” group’s “program” on the basis of necessarily unstable bargains. To the extent that they concern themselves with the labor movement at all, coalition advocates perpetuate the view that workers are selfish pigs whose political activities are correlated purely and simply to their paychecks.

Working-Class Conservatism and Petty-Bourgeois Utopianism

Revisionists and fakers feed upon the left’s general lack of familiarity with pre-Marxian socialism. Thus people are permitted to call themselves Marxists while putting forward the very ideas against which Marxism developed. A superfi­cial view of Leninism is that it developed solely in opposition to reformism and simple trade unionist consciousness. But Bolshevism also developed in intense struggle against petty-bourgeois utopian radicalism, particularly in its anarchist variant. As Lenin noted in Left-Wing Communism:

“It is not yet sufficiently known abroad that Bolshevism grew, took shape and became steeled in long years of struggle against ‘petty-bourgeois revolutionariness,’ which smacks of or borrows something from anarchism, and which in all essentials falls short of the conditions and requirements for sustained proletarian class struggle.”

The hallmark of utopian socialism is the belief that socialist consciousness is based on a generalized moral sense, unrelated to existing social relations. Utopian socialism counterposes itself to Marxism by its denial that the organized working class, driven by material exploitation under capitalism, is uniquely the leading force in the socialist revolution. On one plane, utopian socialism is a reflection of the moral and intellectual snobbery of the petty bourgeoisie. Insofar as utopian socialism concerns itself with attempting a class analysis of the revolution, it usually locates the leading force in the educated middle class, particularly the intelli­gentsia, which is presumed to be genuinely concerned about ideas, unlike the working class which presumably will sell out socialist principles for a mess of porridge.

Working-Class Progressivism

Existing working-class social attitudes certainly fall far short of socialist consciousness. However, it is equally certain that of the major classes in society, the working class is everywhere the most socially progressive. It is the working-class parties, even despite their treacherous bourgeoisified reformist leaderships, that stand for more enlightened social policies. In Catholic Europe and in Islam, it is the working­-class parties that carry the main burden of the struggle against religious obscurantism. The distinctly non-economist issue of divorce was an important factor in breaking the alliance between the Italian social democrats and the dominant bourgeois party, and has stood as a major obstacle to the projected bloc between the Italian CP and left Christian Democrats. In England the anti-capital-punishment forces were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Labour, not in the Conservative or Liberal Party.

It is true that the relatively progressive social policies of most workers’ parties do not accurately reflect the most backward elements in the class. (Aspiring. social democrats use this as a justification for accommodating to the labor bureaucracy, insisting that it is to the “left” of the “average” worker.) All this shows is that working-class organizations represent a higher form of political consciousness than workers taken as atomized individuals in the manner of public opinion polls. This is because the activists and organizers of workers’ organizations represent a certain selection, generally of the most conscious workers  who have already broken from personal “economism’ ‘ and see themselves as representatives of broader class interests. Working-class organizations are shaped by the attitudes of what Lenin called “the advanced workers.” Ideologically conservative workers are almost always politically passive, forced by social pressure against being activists in the right-wing bourgeois parties.

Marxists have always’ been profoundly aware of and concerned with working-class conservatism. Genuine Marx­ism, in contrast to utopian moralism, locates and fights this conservatism in the actual living conditions of workers. As early as the Communist Manifesto, the demands for a shortened work week to give workers the leisure necessary for political and cultural activity, for the emancipation of women, and for free universal higher education, for example, have been an important aspect of revolutionary socialist policy. The utopian moralists have no program to counter working-class backwardness, simply emitting cries of horror coupled with occasional predictions that the working class will be the vanguard of fascism.

Trade Unions and Revolution

An important anarcho-Maoist myth is that trade unions are simply bargaining agents for particular groups of workers and are inherently  apolitical. While this may have been true in the nineteenth century, when labor unions were weak, defensive organizations, it is certainly not true now. In all advanced capitalist countries, and particularly those which have mass social-democratic parties, trade unions exercise considerable influence in all aspects of political life. Even in the U.S. in the 1960’s—a period in which the unions were regarded as particularly passive and bread-and-butter oriented—the union bureaucracy was intimately involved in the issues. Liberal union bureaucrats like Walter Reuther helped finance the Southern civil rights movement of the early 1960’s and played an important role in keeping it within the limits of bourgeois reformism. Millions of dollars in union dues are spent by union lobbyists seeking to pressure Washington politicians. The deeply conservative AFL-CIO central leadership under George Meany is one of the few significant social bases remaining for a “hawk” policy in Vietnam. The problem is not that the labor movement is apolitical, but that it is tied to bourgeois politics. The role of revolutionaries in the unions is not “to divert the economic struggle to a political struggle,” but to overthrow the conservative, reformist bureaucracy and pur­sue a revolutionary policy on both the industrial and the political level.

To assert that trade unions are inherently parochial and economist organizations is undialectical. All genuine class organizations (e.g. unions, parties, factory committees) re­flect the class struggle. To say that unions as such (i.e., simply as bargaining agencies for particular groups of workers) cannot be revolutionary is a tautology. But unions can give birth to other forms of organization (e.g. parties, general strike committees, workers’ councils) and can them­selves provide ‘the structure for a workers’ insurrection, ceasing then to function simply as “unions.” As Trotsky, who certainly knew something about the organization of revolutions, said: “in spite of the enormous advantages of soviets as organs of struggle for power, there may well be cases where the insurrection unfolds on the basis of other forms of organization (factory committees, trade unions, etc.).”

The radicalization of the masses must take place through struggle within the mass organizations of the class, regardless of form. It is not possible for revolutionary consciousness to develop among the mass of workers without lengthy and intense struggles and the intervention. of communists in such fundamental mass organizations as the unions. To term this perspective “economism,” as do the New Leftists, is to transform “Leninism” into a justification for petty-bourgeois utopian moralistic anti-Marxism.