How can people like us, who shun official appointments like the plague, fit into a ‘party’? And what have we, who spit on popularity, who don’t know what to make of ourselves if we show signs of growing popular, to do with a ‘party’, i.e. a herd of jackasses who swear by us because they think we're of the same kidney as they? Truly, it is no loss if we are no longer held to be the ‘right and adequate expression’ of the ignorant curs with whom we have been thrown together over the past few years.
A revolution is a purely natural phenomenon which is subject to physical laws rather than to the rules that determine the development of society in ordinary times. Or rather, in revolution these rules assume a much more physical character, the material force of necessity makes itself more strongly felt. And as soon as one steps forward as the representative of a party, one is dragged into this whirlpool of irresistible natural necessity. By the mere fact of keeping oneself independent, being in the nature of things more revolutionary than the others, one is able at least for a time to maintain one’s independence from this whirlpool, although one does, of course, end up by being dragged into it.The trouble with Marxist theory is that it so often removes Marx and Engels from their vital, human context. How would, say, Althusser respond to the claim made in this letter? I don't think he would have been able to. Marx is mythologically a creature identified with revolution, with the proletariat. But here it seems that Engels is concerned with maintaining independence, not only from the mediocrities of the socialist parties, but also from the great popular movement itself--even if this is a hopeless effort.
- Engels to Marx, February 13, 1851
Is it ironic that such an attitude would be found in the work of someone so strongly associated with collective action? Again, I think not. The reasoning seems to be this: we are describing certain processes which inevitably occur in capitalist society, like revolution; but we recognize that our role as intellectuals is distinct from the broader revolutionary project; so therefore we must work to maintain an autonomy of mind that will tend to erode away in the context of these movements, even if we approve of them. Marx and Engels, acerbic cynics with nary a shred of faith in humanity, would hardly abandon their own, "more revolutionary," social location in favor of running with the "jackasses."
The denial of this privileged philosophical standpoint, which Marx and Engels inherited from a line of philosophers stretching back to Heraclitus, is, I think, the cardinal error of contemporary leftism. For historical materialism, as described by Marx, could stand and fall only insofar as it accurately reflected the movements of the masses: not merely the fact of class struggle, but the fact of class-conscious agency. As it became clear throughout the course of the last century that no such class-consciousness was forthcoming, and as the form of it that existed in the 19th century began gradually to dissolve under reformist pressure, leftists became aware that in order to salvage their theory some cardinal assumptions had to be revised. The abstracted, independent, "more revolutionary" philosopher--not merely a member of the vanguard--was the first to go, to be replaced by a sincerely idealistic revolutionary who was intimately in tune with his people, feeling their suffering like the God of liberation theology. After all, if the entirety of your revolution is to be carried out by a squad of twelve scruffy college students, you have of necessity to substitute sincerity for reliance on the masses.
The great debate between theory and praxis is the fallout of a misunderstanding of that classic eleventh thesis: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Who is doing the changing? Certainly not the philosophers, and certainly not, for all his organizational activity, Marx himself. He was too smart to conceive of the philosopher's practical role as anything but incidental to the great movements of class. And hence, as he repeatedly declared, he was "no Marxist."
The cretinous idealism that pervades the Left today--in which anyone who criticizes the assumption that the silent majority is just waiting for some enlightened Antioch graduate to lead them to freedom is attacked as not "daring to dream" or whatever (though thankfully no longer as a running dog lackey)--is thus fundamentally antithetical to the grounded pragmatism of Marx and Engels. Which is not to say that leftists would be any more effective otherwise, but it certainly suggests that they are far more bourgeois than they would admit. For the demand for authenticity, the need to be a "real," camo-wearing, face-painted revolutionary, is quintessentially bourgeois. If anyone had suggested to Marx that he be on the frontlines of the class war, like some bearded Jewish Marianne, he would have laughed in their face. (after asking them for money, naturally)