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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Lenin and the logic of hegemony: An interview with Alan Shandro

Lenin and the logic of hegemony: An interview with Alan Shandro

D. L. Jacobs

Platypus Review 154 | March 2023

On June 3, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society member D. L. Jacobs interviewed Alan Shandro about Marxism and Shandro’s book Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony (2014). An edited transcript follows.

D. L. Jacobs: How did you become interested in Marxism?

Alan Shandro: I went through my formative years in the 60s, although in a really conservative part of Canada. Nonetheless it too was touched. This was around 1968–70. I was entering university around that time and like most of my generation had questioning, rebellious, critical sympathies with the Wars of Liberation and with the progressive social movements that were going on. In my case, at first, those took an anarchist shape or were expressed through anarchistic sympathies. I took a course in history of political thought at the university and read Marx and Marxists for the first time, and became intellectually convinced of two things: one, the value of historical and dialectical materialism as a means of understanding the social world and its development, and two, the strength of the Marxist critique of anarchism. I was persuaded by both — theoretically and then in practical terms.

DLJ: I wanted to talk about “Karl Marx as Conservative Thinker” (2000)[1] from an intellectual-biographical side: what led you to writing that? It’s a provocative statement. Karl Marx is usually not associated with conservativism. You even make reference to Edmund Burke, a father of modern conservative. But it seemed aimed at intervening in how Marx is usually understood.

AS: Yeah. How did I get there? That’s quite a long time ago. To be fair, the reference to Burke was to a book by Ruth Bevan.[2] The idea that there are certain intellectual affinities between Marxism and conservatism as distinct from liberalism is not a completely original stroke. To soften the provocation in it, I’ll say this. Now we have a number of recent works. Corey Robin comes to mind on conservatism which emphasized its affinity or continuity with harsher forms of reaction.[3] At the time, I was thinking through this: the conservatives with whom I was most familiar would include someone like George Grant, who's probably the preeminent Canadian philosopher of conservatism. He was the author of a small book called Lament for a Nation (1965), which was lamenting the defeat of the conservatives in the 1963 federal election. That was in part significant, over the refusal of that conservative government to allow the installation of nuclear warheads on Bomarc missiles. In a sense, the liberals, who defeated them were less nationalist and more pro-American, or if you want more militaristic and more imperialistic, than the conservatives. Conservatism, in Grant’s mind, represented a sense of a small–town community. There were resonances. That fits more easily with the characterization of Marx in those terms than would some more recent iterations of conservatism. I don’t want to say that that’s what real conservatism is as opposed to phony or fake conservatism, but you asked me to put it in biographical terms.

DLJ: Because you’re contrasting it with utopianism, you contrast Marx, as conservative, with utopianism. You call it methodological conservativism vs. having a utopian ideal to realize. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels write that the significance of the utopians is in “inverse relation to the historical development,”[4] i.e., they’re too early. They end the Manifesto by saying that now the Owenites are reactionary, but Robert Owen was a Progressive figure.[5] Likewise, Engels begins Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) by saying that when socialism starts, it looks like a logical deduction of the French Revolution, but now for us, we can see the material facts that are underneath it.[6] Doesn’t this suggest that the methodological principles were also bound up with the historical change, and wasn’t just a difference in method. I.e., perhaps the utopian socialists couldn’t do what Marx and Engels felt that they could do.

AS: Yeah. When you were raising that example, I was thinking of more recent events. I am sympathetic to the view that Marxism developed in two different directions depending on the part of the world, or, one might say, the side of the imperialist system that’s concerned. Interestingly, where class struggle, if judged by the standards of Marx or Lenin, seems not to have come to fruition, Marxism becomes increasingly utopian to understand itself in terms of the realization of an idea. Whereas, in much of the rest of the world, the global South, or what used to be called the Third World, especially in the countries that have had socialist revolutions, Marxism is concerned with diagnosing what the people are fighting for. This is not to say that it has lost or forgotten about the utopian dimension, but rather that those aspirations are contextualized within a more immediate or immanent understanding of struggle.

DLJ: That’s an interesting way to put it: in areas where there’s not a class struggle, Marxism takes on a kind of abstract character. People read Capital (1867) like it’s an economics book: “let me diagnose a financial crash” — whereas it is a live political text that develops. Lenin develops it further within the class struggle — not simply trying to predict financial crashes. Back to the question about ideals, in that essay you are responding to Will Kymlicka about an antinomy of whether or not Marx is for or against equality, when Kymlicka discusses a passage from the “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875).[7] You write: “this claim is simply wrong, for it assumes that Marx is a transcendental political thinker; that he thinks the best way to remedy a defect is to realize an ideal.”[8]

I was thinking about that because it raises the Hegelian point that to realize something is to overcome it. Towards the end of that passage in the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx says, only once we cross the narrow bourgeois horizon, will we then have from each according to their need, to each to their ability.[9] This is a John Locke desiderata. I’m curious then in terms of what you're thinking about realizing an idea, where Marxism has the view that realizing the ideal of bourgeois society will also mean overcoming bourgeois society, that the proletariat is kind of realizing it, but realizing it as, to quote an early Marx, “the dissolution of society.”[10]

AS: It seems we’re talking about an ideal of equality, freedom, or other things. One would attempt to realize that with a sense of what it would look like when realized, but that sense is going to be like the instantiation of something that’s really abstract. What you were suggesting is that once we have accomplished this thing, it will have been forged not simply by realizing our ideal, it would have been forged by us working on the materials we have to hand, which we only imperfectly understand. Or rather, we only come to understand the materials through working on them. We change circumstances and we change ourselves. So we change what it is we thought we were looking for; perhaps we even half-forget what that was and then we see something that incorporates a lot of other things, a lot of unevennesses and contradictions that we hadn’t supposed were involved in realizing it.

I’m not sure about that essay, but I’ve emphasized the idea of self-emancipation of the working class. I’ve recently come to think that that is not the best kind of locution to use for the kind of reasons that I’ve just been referring to. I’m probably more appreciative of Louis Althusser than most people nowadays, but one of the things I quite appreciate is his insistence that we conceive of practice as production, because that puts in the forefront the idea that there’s not just labor. There’s also raw materials, means of production, etc. We don’t necessarily understand what we’re doing with them and those materials, as well as how our initial intention will shape what the result is. Whereas, self-emancipation can be construed in terms consistent with that. There is a sense of it, which I suspect is hegemonic among Western Marxism these days, where it’s the expression of something that’s already there. And that’s true, but a half-truth, and it’s not adequately understood as a half-truth.

DLJ: Your essay touches on this. You talk about the Foucault-Chomsky debate (1971). Chomsky has somewhat of a transcendental position, or he’s led to that, but even says, “I’m not going to defend it in front of the audience.” Foucault has maybe an immanent position that tends toward relativism.[11] How do you think Marx and Lenin would have judged that debate? It seems to say something about capitalism — there is an antinomy to trying to transform something immanently.

AS: If communism is the movement in the real world that transforms, they would say that Chomsky assumes the movement and looks at the ideal, whereas Foucault doesn’t have the means to think of a movement. Foucault does all this stuff about power, but there’s never any conception of power “with” — or solidarity. As soon as you have power, you are the oppressor. I’m not sure if Marx or Lenin would take either side in it. They would be more interested in challenging the assumptions of the debate. I say “movement” there. In the article, I probably use the language of community more than movement.

DLJ: You mention in that article that Collier and Foucault just sort of segregate proletarian and non-proletarian interests to make sure that the repressive measures directed at the latter do not spill over to the former. A big part of your Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony is how the proletarian class is not merely existing, and then it is either doing something that’s good or not, but that the proletarian class is literally being formed, even as an object — i.e., to say there’s the class in the first place — in the revolutionary process itself. How do you see Lenin staying true to or perhaps, keeping it as an open question, deviating from what you call Marx’s conservatism?

AS: I’m tempted to respond to that by the remarks you made in introducing that question. The article starts out as an internal critique of Andrew Collier’s argument about an immanent, realist, or conservative Marx. I criticize him on these grounds of the great moral, not to say ontological weight, that Collier attaches to the distinction between proletarian and non-proletarian, regarding different moral significance of violence, coercion, or repression, in relation to proletarians and non-proletarians. In supposing that one understands the end for which one is fighting, and in designating class consciousness essentially around an understanding of that, many Marxists have supposed that they could deduce a distinction between who is interested in that end, and who is not. Thus understood, politics largely becomes educational: let’s educate those who don’t understand this end or don’t realize that they ought to have that end or that their conditions of life dictate that they must have it; let’s educate them so that they can then be part of a movement.

DLJ: This is something running throughout your book that I appreciate. Class has become something sociological. Whereas you focus on the logic of class struggle, and that the proletarian class is being formed in a process and consequently, the same person can think of themselves as worker, petty-bourgeoisie, and lumpen at the same time.[12]

AS: You can deduce the end of the process from the circumstances and the interests supposed to be immanent in those circumstances of the working class, of even those understood as dispossessed by capital, or exploited by capital.

Lenin is obliged to understand that in order for the working class to be hegemonic — he’s thinking of this in the first instance in relation to a democratic or bourgeois-democratic revolution in which it is not only the working class, but the bourgeois themselves in a sense, but also peasants, and if you go into his What is to be Done? (1902) especially you know it’s old religious believers and minority-nationalities, etc. The struggle involves all of those people and in leading the struggle, which is still a class struggle of the working class, but it’s not only that, right? That only exists in the real world. It’s an abstraction; in the real world, it is modified in its workings by circumstances which include other struggles, like the estate of the peasantry and the lords, and so on and so forth. Now, if you’re going to win — and Lenin’s whole point vis-à-vis the Economists was not just that one requires political struggle or political demands, but rather one requires a struggle over state power — then class consciousness involves understanding the need to rule. But if that’s what’s involved and we’re talking about a democratic revolution, who rules? Not just the working class. Part of what ruling involves is equipping these other segments to govern as well, most importantly, in the case of Russia, the peasantry. But if one wants to draw broader implications from that analysis, one would say that the diverse groups that are involved in struggle or resistance along with the working class. Who they are, is going to change with circumstances.

If we then take class consciousness not just to be intentional but also reflexive, then part of class consciousness is what Lenin was calling hegemony, i.e., this process of leadership over other forces. Hegemony wasn’t imposing working-class interests on them, but rather developing an understanding of the struggle that would incorporate in the working class’s self-understanding, its own class consciousness, the need to lead other groups; and so the process of leading them as well. The revolutionary social democrat’s role in the process of democratic emancipation becomes part of the consciousness of the working class; it’s not an add-on and it’s not instrumental to the achievement of aims that are defined prior to thinking about those other classes. This is an immanent way of thinking about consciousness.

DLJ: There’s a Lenin text that I’m sure you’re aware of called “Marxism and Nasha Zarya” (1911), where he says directly, “[f]rom the standpoint of Marxism the class, so long as it renounces the idea of hegemony or fails to appreciate it, is not a class, or not yet a class, but a guild, or the sum total of various guilds.”[13]

AS: That was around 1911–1912 probably.

DLJ: How do you see this linking up with the logic of hegemony, or what is required for the class to form itself? Because that would seem to imply to me that it is possible to have wage laborers in America, but who don't view themselves as a class leading a democratic revolution — that’s not an individual thing, but that would have to be a national-level, super-national level thing. This raises this question about class not as a sociological thing but as a political-social act, and that the formation of the class is not just there, but you have to form it and you’re linking it to something immanent that is happening in-and-through how the proletariat is defining itself against capital.

AS: Let’s say you and I can agree on a concept of what the working class is, and so who is and who isn’t a worker. But if, pre-politically, if the process of formation of the working class is indeed a process, then there’s going to be people who may not clearly fall into one side or another-may have a foot in different camps as it were. Let’s say we thought of our politics as explaining to people that there’s a division of class interest on this side and in our daily struggles, and there’s a fundamental set of allies and interests, etc. Let’s take the example of somebody who works part-time and runs numbers for gamblers on the side. Or another who sublets a room in their house to someone for rent. What do they think of themselves as? What do they think we think of them as? Are they proletarian, lumpenproletariat, petty-bourgeois, etc.? In order to establish working class unity, you probably have to cast your nets wider than the working class in any case, because the consciousness you have to be concerned with is not something you have. You have to take into account how other people see themselves and see that you are trying to organize them! If you’re going to lead them, it’s going to matter to them, what they think you think of them.

DLJ: You start off the text by noting that while Gramsci makes reference to Lenin when formulating his theory of hegemony, Lenin had faced the problem of hegemony concretely in practice. In other words, the hegemony of the proletariat posed itself in 1905.

AS: Gramsci understood himself as a Leninist. We can argue over the extent to which he stepped away from that. But that was always part of his self-understanding. Cultural hegemony, with which Gramsci has been saddled —Gramsci never used the term “cultural hegemony.” I’m not sure where that came from but it’s awful. Gramsci always thought the battle of ideas was grounded in an economic and political battle. He uses the terms “consent” and “coercion,” but what’s inadequately formulated is that Marx uses a term like “the dull compulsion of economic relations,”[14] which is not exactly consent and not exactly coercion, although, one could understand it as coercion. That’s part of what Lenin and Gramsci thought was involved in hegemony.

DLJ: This relates to the bourgeois revolutionary tradition. I’m glad you brought up John Locke at the end of your book regarding the executive prerogative, which is similar to coercion and consent. The idea is that the person who’s deputized to act, to make a discerning judgment, is acting in the interests of the people.

AS:Salus populi suprema lex esto” (the health of the people is the supreme law). Interestingly, Plekhanov had “salus revolutiae suprema lex” (the health of the revolution is the supreme law). I think he was having a go at Lenin with that.

DLJ: It reminds me of the classic passage from Chapter 10 of Capital, that “when right meets right, force decides.”[15] The class struggle is returning to that bourgeois executive prerogative, but it is now contradictory or has this class-struggle logic to it. Who’s right — the factory owner or the workers? They both have equally valid claims on their property rights — this class struggle aspect. How do you see the executive prerogative, specifically in terms of class struggle, relating to this idea of hegemony? For the Paris Commune, even some capitalists looked to the workers as their representatives.[16]

AS: Not just the Paris Commune — the Bolsheviks had donations from capitalists,  but this was during the period when everyone thought we were fighting for a democratic rather than a socialist revolution.

DLJ: Today people think of class struggle as a sociological thing. You make reference to Karl Kautsky’s great text, “Foundation of Christianity” (1908), which takes up the perennial tale of rich vs. poor — even some sophisticated Marxism still has that idea. Whereas what you’re recapturing is that the class struggle is bound up with the sovereignty of society.

AS: You said something about the prerogative of the executive as playing a role in hegemony. I relate that to the idea of class consciousness as an incorporating ruling. Certainly people would elect deputies to accomplish some tasks.

Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) and Marxist political thought as a whole is in some sense Rousseauian. But State and Revolution goes beyond Rousseau, because Rousseau thought a democracy in his sense — i.e., not just in which the laws were made, but were executed by the whole people — was impossible. That would require a people of angels, but that seems to me is what Lenin is talking about. He’s not talking just about elections to a legislature on top of an executive. He’s talking about reforming executive functions by them being taken in hand by groups of the people. There’s a piece he wrote for publication,  immediately after he drafted State and Revolution, called “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” (1917), where he compares the state removing people from housing.

DLJ: Lenin has an example of how the capitalist state now would do it and what a proletarian state would do.

AS: Right. The proletarian state has got to have everybody, but you redesign the tasks and the functions and reallocate them, and you establish organizations. It’s not that everybody develops the professionalism that’s needed in order to be a civil servant nowadays. Rather, the functions are reconceptualized and divided up so that, as imperfect as people are now, they can begin to take those tasks up. The confidence developed in that process powers a dynamic whereby further things are invented, which nobody would have thought of at the start of the process. Then we look at that and we say, “that’s what Marx meant.” No, that’s not what Marx meant. But if we want to think of Marx now in terms of this stuff, then okay.

When equal rights collide, force decides. But the force isn’t just people with guns commanding each other. Lenin had an example of a group of 15 people installing homeless people in part of a bourgeois house: some of them are illiterate, soldiers, sailors, a couple women, and a student.[17] One: just the mass of people; two, their determination and persistence and confidence — that’s a force. That shifts the ground on which we decide, which right prevails or how we understand rights.

DLJ: It goes back to the General Will: there’s something prior to the laws; or even Montesquieu: there’s a spirit to the laws. You start Chapter One by quoting Gramsci, from whom the chapter title is taken: “The realisation of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge: it is a fact of knowledge of philosophical fact.”[18] This seems to be an impetus for the book. Can you talk about the philosophical fact in Lenin?

AS: In that quote Gramsci has the party in view.

Let me digress a little bit. In probably the predominant Western Marxist understanding of the history of this period, there’s a division between revolutionaries and reformists in the working-class movement; there are many people in the middle who try to pass themselves off as revolutionaries, but they’re reformists. That’s not how Lenin understood it. Those people in the middle were what he called centrists. We don’t just have a position over revolution or reform if we're in the movement. We have to think about relating to these other people who are in or claim to be in the movement or have an influence over other people in it. Lenin developed a category (centrism), and much of Western Marxism shies away from this category because it includes Karl Kautsky and Leon Trotsky. That’s a certain way of relating to revolution and reform. For a long time, Trotsky’s project was to unite the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, for which he criticized himself; how deep that went is another question. There’s an understanding of the relation between different parts of the movement and how we work on it in order to further its development. You need that reflexive level of analysis.

Members of the party are more conscious in virtue of having joined the party, of the need to not just take up a position, revolution versus reform, the issues of the day, etc., but also about to whom one can appeal; from whom one separates themselves; how one relates to people who sort of agree in bringing movement together, etc. In that process, we can go back to the diverse groups Lenin saw as opposing the Tsar and being in need of leadership. In staking out that position, you set up an understanding and a set of interrelations that can promote organizing people to go to install someone in the bourgeoise’s house. In consequence of doing that, they say, “holy shit, we got somebody a house.” What does that say about us? We have some power. Then they’re beginning to think on a broader scale. Think at that level — like you’re achieving aims — but you’re also achieving a transformation of social relations. This is a long-term process. This is probably something I didn’t take up as fully as I ought to have done in the book. Especially in the early days and months after the seizure of power in October 1917, Lenin said, “we have to learn; we don’t know how to rule; we have to learn how to rule.” He was hoping that they could persuade or allow the bourgeois factory owners to stay on, and, if not them, the intellectual administrators, because they know how to run things. The workers are going to have to learn that stuff. At that time, workers’ control meant the workers organized themselves to control the managers. It was a mess because a lot of the managerial or intellectual class went on strike, emigrated, etc. It was not as smooth as Lenin would have hoped. The fact that that was a central hope in the process, implies understanding, that “we can’t just set about ruling according to our thing.”

Marx’s writings bring all kinds of elements of inspiration but probably more suggestions: try this, try that. There’s going to be a long learning process and with it, the transformation of the social relations that’s needed in order to make the acts of ruling, organizing society, and taking command of its functions. In order for those goals to be completed, in order for new designs to be worked out, the process must be more open to the people doing it themselves. Consequently the division between intellectual and manual labor, between rulers and ruled, gradually withers into something less weighty.

DLJ: In the text, you mention that one of Lenin’s favorite phrases was from Napoleon: “first engage in a serious battle and then see what happens.”[19] Returning to the question of process, because we in Platypus had a conversation in 2012, and there were two panelists talking about Lenin: One of them was Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency, who said that Lenin had a different view of the party than Kautsky. Kautsky had a view of the “party of one class,” while Lenin had a view of looking to split the working class.[20] This is why Lenin is calling Kautsky a centrist: Kautsky is obscuring the split in the Second International. On the other side was Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain. You mentioned Lars Lih, that Lenin's theory seems to be “lock, stock, and barrel” from Kautsky’s Road to Power (1909).[21] Lewis argued that Lenin realized Kautsky’s program, and Kautsky went “renegade” on the program.[22] What I thought was interesting in your text is that you defend Kautsky from caricatures, like Colletti’s polemic,[23] but you also say there’s something about Kautsky’s limitations, that is not just a theoretical mistake, but rather Kautsky’s failure to grasp developments in capitalism. How do you see Lenin’s divergence from Kautsky through his experience over his lifetime?

AS: I have a good deal of respect for Kautsky. In terms of understanding Lenin, people like Kautsky and Plekhanov are more important than folks like Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Which is not to say that they’re politically preferable, but rather in terms of understanding their intellectual trajectory. In the chapter on Kautsky, I was arguing that there is a treatment of Kautsky, which, when I was growing up and for much of the time since, was predominant. People would say the same thing about Stalin: i.e., it was a mechanical materialism, that there was no conception or understanding of human agency there at all. Essentially what I was saying, with people Colletti, Leszek Kołakowski — Karl Korsch says same thing — but this was a pervasive understanding: that Kautsky didn’t understand the ontological difference of human beings, that human beings are actors and not just concatenations of matter. I demonstrate that that’s just nonsense. Kautsky may have understood it in a different way. Kautsky certainly did not understand Marx in ontological-mechanical materialist terms. Folks like Kołakowski or Colletti wouldn’t call it dialectical materialism, they would probably call it, I don’t know, human material subjectivity, or something like that. That line of thought was picked up by a lot of the Marxist Left, particularly the Trotskyist Left, but really anybody who styled themselves to the Left of the Communist Parties.

By contrast, I suggest that doesn’t work, and that the proper question isn’t about when people are capable of agency, but rather, how that agency is understood. We went through this whole discussion about how it was that a class consciousness, or socialist consciousness, or a consciousness of the political activity of class came in Lenin’s case, to be thought reflexively through the necessity of political leadership over other classes. That’s absent in Kautsky. Instead, Kautsky has the idea that the most advanced, active, united, and conscious sections of the proletarian class, or the class in the most developed sections of capitalist industry will lead, and all the other sections will follow them, and replicate the same kind of understanding. That’s similarly true of sections of the agricultural laborers. For Kautsky, there isn’t any need in socialist consciousness to think through mobilizing the peasants before they are divided into agricultural laborers versus agricultural capitalists. Multiply that by all the diverse groups that Lenin had in mind. Lenin understood hegemony as leadership in the bourgeois democratic revolution. It’s a kind of an epistemological problem, because the ability to develop that kind of consciousness depends upon an understanding of the people one is working with as not simply either having the same consciousness as you or not yet understanding it, but also having their own consciousness of you, which is part of the dynamic and has to be taken into account.

DLJ: The first footnote — it might be my favorite — from What is to be Done?, where Lenin is talking about the entire revisionist dispute in Germany, England, France, and Russia, and he asks if this is the first battle of the revolution. I.e., one of the differences between Lenin and Kautsky is the image Kautsky gives us of a stream.[24]The shells of the old proletarian classes are going to be wiped away by a stream.[25] Lenin, however, is pursuing the crisis within the Second International, including Kautsky’s own resistance, as a necessary moment in the formation of the class. You put it one time — it’s one in one of the 1914 articles[26] — where Lenin says, the problem is not the social chauvinists, who are helping to delineate the line, but, rather, the problem is Kautsky, who is a centrist and obscuring the line.[27]

You talked about how Lenin’s view towards Marxism changed over time. You say, Marxism is treated as something that the proletariat could be receptive[28] to around the publication of What is to be Done? There’s also a great letter to the northern League where Lenin says the same thing.[29] Lenin’s Marxism is changing with One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), because he talks about, as you quote, “independent application of Marx’s theory to peculiar and new (new to the Germans) social and economic relations.”[30] What I was trying to get at with the footnote from What is to Be Done? is then, the highest stage of capitalism: it’s not the end of growth,[31] but rather the consciousness of the crisis, showing itself within Marxism, even by Kautsky, the “pope of Marxism,” and Lenin himself. Lenin is called a renegade in his own right by Kautsky. What do you think that says about the logic of hegemony and the formation of class consciousness even through the crisis of Marxism?

AS: The argument about consciousness that Lenin lays out in regarding spontaneity, in What is to be Done?, is pivotal to his whole development, but it doesn’t articulate a final position. I suggest that it opens up a space in which to think about things.

On my reading — as distinct from the then conventional wisdom about Kautsky — Kautsky's analysis did grasp a central aspect of socialist or class consciousness. Where Lenin differed is that his account implied, further, that there’s going to be new and unforeseen conjunctures, and the grasping of them will become part of what’s required for those who would profess themselves conscious.

DLJ: There’s not a fixed image of the class?

AS: That’s right, and there’s no fixed image of socialism or of the class struggle.

Here’s what Lenin became clearer about in the 1905 Russian Revolution: Marxism isn’t just an actor in the class struggle; it’s also an object. Other classes try to act upon it. Lenin thought that bourgeois hegemony in the democratic revolution would be like using the working class as a stage army to frighten the Tsar, which worked — not because the workers picked up the bourgeois papers and we’re convinced, but because they picked up the papers of the Marxist or socialists, who had a narrow understanding of what their tasks were and acted within those narrow limits. The question is not whether someone is active or not. The question is, how are they active? That’s a function, not of the ontology of someone’s consciousness or activity, etc., but of the social struggles, their intersection, and the position that one occupies within them.

The largest part of Western Marxism is concerned with the following: why has the working class not made a revolution in the West? What’s wrong with them? How do we make them conscious and active? Maybe they aren’t self-active anymore! Maybe we need a Marxism that reckons with the passivity or inactivity. No! I wasn’t as clear as I should have been in the book. That’s the wrong question. I think it’s in Lenin’s What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats.

DLJ: 1894.

AS: Lenin says there, that people are active, but they’re active within their social relations.[32] The most mystified, un-class-conscious, conservative-reactionary workers, peasants, farmers, or students are also active human beings. Pace Georg Lukács, the working class is not a different ontological force.

DLJ: What is contributing to making Marxism appear as a theory to throw at passive workers, or an explanation of financial crashes (for which, according to Marx, Simonde de Sismondi already did a good job). Why is this lesson from Lenin disappearing?

AS: I did an interview a few years ago with an Iranian labor magazine, and they asked me whether I thought a revolution was possible. I reflexively said it was inevitable. That was the wrong answer to the wrong question, because they both presuppose that the revolution is up ahead. What I should have said is, it’s here; you’re just looking for something that you think of as a revolution, maybe because of Russia, China, or whatever.

The position of the working class and progressives in the working-class movement and in other movements in the West — I tried to think about it, because there is a revolution going on in the world, but we’re captured by the idea that there isn’t a revolution going on in the world if it isn’t here. But that would be like saying, the Paris Commune started in the east of Paris; its strong points were not in the bourgeois, west end. What if you’re a maid, a butler, a tailor, or postal worker who works in the west end? How do you relate to the revolution? That is going on, though. There is a revolution going on. E.g., the process of extraction of surplus profits — actually Trotsky’s god-son, Michael Hudson —

DLJ: I’m interviewing him next week.[33]

AS: I find his take on “super imperialism”[34] and the financial processes, whereby a surplus profit is extracted and distributed at the level of nation-states, to be useful in understanding how the lines of struggle fall where they do.

DLJ: You mean between America and China?

AS: Only when considered as leading different alliances or sets of forces. The Chinese have a strategy of developing their country through the Belt and Road Initiative, which, unlike previous forms of investment in the Third World, is focused on developing infrastructure. That has had an effect on large parts of the global South, in aiding forms of economic development that have some measure of autonomy from imperial forces, which has contributed to creating a balance of forces, allowing the Russians to absorb the full might of economic sanctions.

This is manifesting in a shift in the balance of forces on a world scale, and how that will play out here, I don’t know. But for Third World countries, it has created political space and confidence that’s allowing for people to push for more democracy, more equality, more space for national independence and other forms of independence. Part of the problem is that elements of that alliance are states that can’t claim to be socialist in any way.

DLJ: I’m still thinking of your Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony. There are still obviously oppressed workers in the Americas — Canada, the U.S.

AS: Absolutely.

DLJ: Following this logic, it would still require Chinese workers to lead American workers. I sometimes worry that theory gets set at the level of China and America, and they become stand-ins for the capitalists and proletariat, e.g., the entirety of America is the ruling class and the entirety of China becomes the proletariat.

AS: Both of which are obviously false.

DLJ: Right, but my point, from the lesson garnered from the text, is that there’s a task to do in forming the proletarian class. It’s just separate from the question of NATO and the multipolar world. I’ll also be talking with Michael Hudson next week about it.

AS: I bet you will!

DLJ: But it would still seem like the task and the experience that Lenin had would still or is still kind of missing there. The question of the logic of hegemony in a democratic Revolution? It does not seem as concrete and clarified, or at least concise as it is for us as it was for Lenin.

AS: Right.

DLJ: Take investments in the Belt and Road Initiative; in infrastructure. I’m happy it exists, but there remains this question of hegemony in a democratic revolution — and you still need a democratic revolution in America.

AS: That raises an interesting question about the way that terminology has developed. The Chinese use the term “hegemony” in a different way with the opposite connotations. For Lenin, “hegemony” was a positive word — bourgeois hegemony was a bad thing.  It started out with proletarian hegemony in the bourgeois democratic revolution, and that’s what Gramsci inherited. But Gramsci has been read predominantly in Western academia as bourgeois hegemony and it’s a bad thing. The Chinese are influenced by the experience of the Sino-Soviet split, where the Soviets, for understandable historical reasons, were insistent on casting themselves as the model, the leading figure. The Soviets, in their relations with the Chinese, were harmfully and unreasonably insistent upon their way of doing things and their right to use sticks and withhold carrots, if need be.

That’s what the Chinese understand as hegemonism. Reinforced by that experience with the Soviets, the Chinese largely refuse to intervene in other countries. They’ll share their experiences, but there’s no insistence, no attempt to sponsor groups within other countries that would be the vehicle of spreading that experience. In that sense, the Chinese are anti-hegemony, but that’s using the term differently compared to Lenin and Gramsci.

There's no use of the term “counter-hegemony” in Gramsci. I suspect it’s from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. But I find it objectionable as a stand-in for proletarian hegemony, working-class hegemony, or the hegemony of the working-class movement, etc., because it could also mean the absence of any hegemony at all, i.e., there’s no need for a leading force that will play a more conscious role in orchestrating movements for change to transform social relations in a way that will make change durable and self-reproducing. That the Chinese shy away from playing that role in relation to other countries is probably superior — or they grew up in different circumstances than the Soviets. They just think they can’t dictate that to other movements that lead the process of transformation in other countries, and their best way of contributing to that, is not trying to do it for us.

DLJ: Right, but that still means the task remains for us.

AS: Absolutely.

DLJ: There was a neo-social democratic turn in a lot of Western countries in the last decade: Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, but also SYRIZA and Podemos. There has been a split between two different ways of thinking about the Left. One was the working class: a class-first thing; while the other way emphasizes different forms of oppression: race, gender, sexuality, etc. How does the logic of hegemony enter those struggles? There was this idea that if we focus on class, it will be more universal and would allow one to have more hegemony.

AS: These movements aren’t just autonomous actors; they’re also acted upon. There’s been a bunch of work that’s come to my attention recently, suggesting the ways that the CIA and other state and corporate agencies have sought to fashion a responsible or maybe not even responsible, but an alternative Left, one that’s disorganized and may indeed be a source of disorganization. I don’t have an answer to the question, but if I go back to “Karl Marx as Conservative Thinker” and that discussion — yeah, class is a more universal or more open basis upon which to organize resistance. But, seeing as how the forms of exploitation and oppression that are carried by capitalism affect all forms of our life — we have found out, since the second wave of the feminist movement and in subsequent movements concerned with sexuality in various forms, that that’s a dimension along which oppression and alienation are lived. Those questions need to be addressed in order to forge unity, because a hell of a lot of people have those questions. They have those questions not just because they are oppressed women, gay people, trans people, etc. They’re on the other side of the political spectrum, who feel that their sense of being able to support a family and deliver a paycheck has been challenged, or people who see the coordinates of their community being disrespected. There has to be the ability to speak with both those sets of people.

DLJ: I saw your essay cited in an article that said that the professional managerial class starts from an ideal and then tries to impose it upon other people. For example, saying you’re acting in a way that’s not “woke.”[35] The understanding of the article was that the Left had adopted this way of imposing ideals and that this was not Marxist, i.e., that this was not an immanent critique. One should not just accept what people have as their immediate views, but there  is the question of giving a practical critique in which people can come to reflect on their own ideology. You referred to people who feel their community has been disrespected — that happens for a lot of what would be associated with conservative, Right-wing communities in America. What is the rational kernel? How do they understand the crisis of capitalism — even the stuff about replacement theory — as expressing capitalism in variegated and different ways?

AS: In consequence of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, we had a big split in Marxism. One of the criticisms that I make of Lenin is that there was an ambiguity in his sense of that development. He thought he was just continuing Marxism. This happened also with the notion of hegemony: Lenin thought he was continuing the notion of hegemony, while the Mensheviks had abandoned it. What he didn’t realize is that he’d actually changed the notion of hegemony, as had they.

We talked earlier about how the lines of class struggle are being refracted on a world scale with the sense that a Marxism — whether the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cubans, Nicaraguans or the Venezuelans — was more hands-on, had a more immanent sense of the connection with the process of revolution relating to actual struggles in the Third World than here. Around 2001–02, Slavoj Žižek invited me to a conference that he organized on Lenin. I went, and felt like a fish out of water. I remember talking with one of Žižek’s associates who supposed that the working class was nothing. Nonetheless, Žižek is supposed to be a representative of Marxism. Much later, it struck me that a number of my students understood Marxism to be the Frankfurt School. I.e., Marxism is now a recognition that the working class is not revolutionary and a matter of grappling with what to do now. This is an assertion that should have more of a question mark on it, because I haven’t done the homework that would be needed to support it, but I suspect that Marxism has played a role in fueling some of the aspirations of the professional and managerial class to construct a society, in which, “you will own nothing and you will be happy.”[36] Posthumanism has something like that vision. It has green aspects to it as well, but it’s centered in North America and Europe. It sees itself as progressive. At the end of “Karl Marx as a Conservative Thinker,” I said that there was a temptation in contemporary Marxism to understand socialism as a materialization or substantialization of liberal categories, e.g., we are free but not just formally free: we have the material goods to do anything we want, as individuals. That understanding of what a post-capitalist society would be informs the aspirations of people who styled themselves on the Left.

That’s the enemy. I don’t say those people are the enemy, because we need to have a discussion.

DLJ: You might have to lead them. I think of this André Gorz piece, where he says, these bureaucrats might have to be led by the working class. He’s talking about the professional managerial class. I.e., to the degree that there’s not an organized working class, they are going to think, the best thing we can do is integrate into the long march through the institutions.

AS: If and as working-class movements arise that begin to take the affairs of the nation in hand — not necessarily occupying state power yet, but making their force and their ideas felt —  a lot of people, whom I’m styling the enemy, will see that as inspiring.

DLJ: Yes, the logic of the class struggle, coming all the way back to it.

AS: Yes, there we go. |P

[1] Alan Shandro, “Karl Marx as a Conservative Thinker,” Historical Materialism 6, no. 1 (January 2000): 3–26.

[2] Ruth Bevan, Marx and Burke: A Revisionist View (La Salle: Open Court Publishing, 1973).

[3] Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[4] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Chapter III: Socialist and Communist Literature,” in The Communist Manifesto,  available at <>

[5] Ibid.: “Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavour, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms . . . They, therefore, violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel. The Owenites in England, and the Fourierists in France, respectively, oppose the Chartists and the Réformistes.”

[6] Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, available online at <>: “But, in its theoretical form, modern Socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the 18th century. Like every new theory, modern Socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in material economic facts.”

[7] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” available online at <>: “equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored . . . To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.”

[8] Shandro, “Karl Marx as a Conservative Thinker,” 9.

[9] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

[10] Karl Marx, “Introduction,” in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), available online at <>: “This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.”

[11] Available online at <>: “FOUCAULT: If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this; in other words, it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power. But it seems to me that, in any case, the notion of justice itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it.

            CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with that.

FOUCAULT: And in a classless society, I am not sure that we would still use this notion of justice.

CHOMSKY: Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis — if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out-ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a “real” notion of justice is grounded. I think it’s too hasty to characterise our existing systems of justice as merely systems of class oppression; I don’t think that they are that. I think that they embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real.

And I think that in any future society, which will, of course, never be the perfect society, we’ll have such concepts again, which we hope, will come closer to incorporating a defence of fundamental human needs, including such needs as those for solidarity and sympathy and whatever, but will probably still reflect in some manner the inequities and the elements of oppression of the existing society.”

[12] Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 280: “The proletariat constitutes itself as a class only in aggregating the people around itself as a kind of political penumbra. To characterize the process of class formation in this way is to look at it from within; examined from without, on the contrary, individuals and groups might simply be subsumed under the appropriate Marxist class categories. But where lived experience reflects a contradictory combination of class practices and positions, workers may well see themselves as workers but, perhaps at the same time, as would-be petty bourgeois or lumpen proletarians ‘on the make’, and certainly without knowing how they will be seen, and where they will be ranked, by those who would lead them.”

[13] V. I. Lenin, “Marxism and Nasha Zarya,” in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 17 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 54–59, available online at <>.

[14] Karl Marx, “Chapter 28: Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing Down of Wages by Acts of Parliament,” in Capital, vol. I (1867), available online at <<>: “The advance of capitalist production develops a working class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labour, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist.”

[15] Karl Marx, “Chapter 10: The Working-Day,” in Capital, vol. I, available online at <>: “There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.”

[16] Karl Marx, “The Paris Commune,” in The Civil War in France (1871), available online at <>: “And yet, this was the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Paris middle class – shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants – the wealthy capitalist alone excepted. The Commune had saved them by a sagacious settlement of that ever recurring cause of dispute among the middle class themselves – the debtor and creditor accounts.”

[17] V. I. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” (1917), available online at <>.

[18] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks,in Selections from Prison Notebooks, eds. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: Lawrence & Wishart, 2005), 365–66.

[19] V. I. Lenin, “Our Revolution (Apropos of N. Sukhanov’s Notes)” (1923), available online at <>.

[20] Ben Lewis and Tom Riley with Chris Cutrone, “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <>.

[21] Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, 254.

[22] Lewis and Riley with Cutrone, “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy.”

[23] Shandro Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, 39: “But Colletti’s Kautsky is a man of straw. And to refute a caricature is to risk reproducing the real errors of the position criticized (and the real defeats that stem therefrom.” See also Lucio Colletti, “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International,” in From Rousseau to Lenin: Studies in Ideology and Society (London: New Left Books, 1972).

[24] [DLJ was thinking of Rosa Luxemburg, who had a Kautskyan conception at the time.] Rosa Luxemburg to Henriette Roland-Holst (December 14, 1904), quoted in Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), 33: “Opportunism is in any case a swamp plant, which develops rapidly and luxuriously in the stagnant waters of the movement; in a swift running stream it will die of itself. Here in Germany a forward motion is an urgent, burning need! And only the fewest realize it. Some fritter away their energy in petty disputes with the opportunists, others believe that the automatic, mechanical increase in numbers (at elections and in the organizations) is progress in itself!”

[25] “Karl Kautsky, “Chapter VI: The Growth of Revolutionary Elements,” in The Road to Power (1909), available online at <>: To be sure, these revolutionary elements are only revolutionary as a possibility, not as a reality. They constitute the recruiting ground for the “soldiers of the revolution”, but not all are at once such soldiers. To a large degree hatched out of the small capitalist and small farmer class, many proletarians long carry the shells of these classes about with them. They do not feel themselves proletarians, but as would-be property owners.”

[26] V. I. Lenin, “Dead Chauvinism and Living Socialism” (1914), available online at <>.

[27] Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, 257: “The primary target of Lenin’s theory of imperialism was not the ‘social chauvinism’ of those like Plekhanov who sided with their respective imperialist governments — ‘One does not analyse arguments in favour of a pogrom; one only points them out so as to put their authors to shame in the sight of all class-conscious workers’ — but ‘Kautskyism’, the Social Democratic current whose opposition to the war was conceived apart from the struggle for socialist revolution and undertaken instead with a view to preserving the conditions for an eventual fraternal reunification of the Socialist International once hostilities had concluded.”

[28] Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, 200: “What is to Be Done? Conceived the spontaneous movement of the working class as a contradictory unity of proletarian experience and the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie, but expressed the relation of proletarian experience to revolutionary socialism only as receptiveness to the established truths of Marxist theory, not yet as the site of a capacity for creative innovation. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin insisted that Marxism develops in the course of struggle-but at the same time he portrayed the struggle as pertaining to the more-or-less consistent application of a given theoretical and political position; he did not see himself as a locus of innovation.”

[29] V. I. Lenin, “Letter to Northern League” (1902), available online at <>.

[30] V.I. Lenin, “F. The Agrarian Programme,” in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), available online at <>.

[31] Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, 259: “imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism and thus the stage of transition to socialism not by virtue of a supposed inability to stimulate technological progress or enhance economic growth, but because it restructured the arena of class struggles, extended the contradictions of capitalist production to the furthest corners of the world and thus reorganised irreversibly the pattern of contradictions that would shape the transition to socialism. What is crucial to his analysis is not some dogma concerning the level of production allegedly already attained, but the manner in which the logic and the structure of imperialist contradictions grow out of the social form of monopoly capitalism within which production is organised and moves.”

[32] V. I. Lenin, “Part I,” in What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (1894), available online at <>: “Not without interest is the next thing Mr. Mikhailovsky has to say about historical necessity, because it reveals, if only partly, the real ideological stock-in-trade of ‘our well-known sociologist’ (the title enjoyed by Mr. Mikhailovsky, equally with Mr. V. V., among the liberal members of our ‘cultured society’). He speaks of ‘the conflict between the idea of historical necessity and the significance of individual activity’: socially active figures err in regarding themselves as active, when as a matter of fact they are ‘activated,’ ‘marionettes, manipulated from a mysterious underground by the immanent laws of historical necessity’ — such, he claims, is the conclusion to be drawn from this idea, which he therefore characterises as ‘sterile’ and ‘diffuse.’”

[33] See D. L. Jacobs, “The destiny of civilization: An interview with Michael Hudson,” Platypus Review 151 (November 2022), available online at <>.

[34] See Michael Hudson, Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972).

[35] Benedict Cryptofash, “Marxism is Antileftism, Part 3” (February 5, 2022), The Antileftist Marx: “Marx’s radical divergence from the utopian idealism central to the left has prompted scholars like Collier and Alan Shandro to go so far as to make the paradoxical claim that Marx’s political thought is a form of ‘methodological conservatism,’ founded on ‘an immanent or internal account of capitalist society and not upon the inadequacy of this society when measured against a transcendent or external standard.’

Whereas this conservative or ‘immanent’ tradition of political theory takes for granted ‘the aims and interests of an existing society, group, or institution . . . as the appropriate frame of reference,’ the ‘style of political thought, which is characteristic of radicals and liberals, might be termed transcendental, since its political practice consists essentially of attempting to bring political reality into conformity with an ideal that transcends it.’ On this basis, Shandro argues that ‘Marx’s concept of proletarian self-emancipation . . . is appropriately understood as a variant of’ the conservative critique in which ‘the proponents of fundamental or revolutionary social change necessarily fail by sacrificing the organic complexity of society and the individual upon a procrustean bed of dogmatic and rigid universal principles.’”

[36] See Ida Auken, “Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better” (November 11, 2016) and Ceri Parker, “8 predictions for the world in 2030” (November 12, 2016), World Economic Forum, available online at <>.