Why workers must lead intellectually

BY:M. Siddique| January 23, 2020
Why workers must lead intellectually


Editor’s note: This article responds to the November 2019 discussion question on political independence, working-class leadership, and the fight for democracy.

The need for working-class leadership in the political arena is felt strongly now because of two unwanted developments: Trump’s vicious assaults on workers’ rights and the use of those same workers as his so-called blue-collar base. The working class as the producers of goods and services—society’s wealth—is in a critical position to lead the transformation of the society. When the workers become class conscious, they recognize their interests as the general interests of the society—the elimination of class division and social ownership of the means of production. Society must come to the same realization as well.

Engels called the workers who identify with the capitalist class victims of “false consciousness.”[1] Marx pointed out that a person’s “social existence . . . determines their consciousness.” Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich wrote,

What has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike.

The ruling class spends a lot of resources to create confusion among the working class because they are aware of the power of unity. The defense and rationalization of capitalist exploitation is a relentless endeavor, and every institution—from schools to churches—are employed in this task. Racism, sexism, xenophobia—whatever has the slightest potential for use to present the status quo as the best that can be expected—is used routinely. Society’s moral and ethical values are manipulated to support class exploitation and defend capitalism. Marx explained:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

This does not mean that the working class and others have no way out:

The proletariat can become the leading (dirigent) and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State.[2]

Ideological struggle is a crucial necessity in fighting false consciousness. This has been the role of the revolutionary intellectuals. In What Is to Be Done? Lenin wrote:

The theory of socialism . . . grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. . . . in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy . . . arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.

Especially over the last 50 years, much energy has been spent on debating “alienation,” “young Marx vs. mature Marx,” etc., and not much on how to fight capitalist ideological assault against Marxism-Leninism, which prevents the working class from gaining the class consciousness necessary for progress toward socialism. Yet 21st-century workers are a lot more educated than their predecessors, as required by the systems of production that have been radically altered by scientific and technological revolutions. They are capable of understanding Marxist theories. It is necessary to think of mechanisms to reach them.

It is said that a movement creates its own leaders. Working-class leadership may come from those who support socialism; those who campaign for Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and others; and those who engage in the day-to-day fight against exploitation. They will need (and hopefully, seek) help to become leaders, and the CPUSA must be ready to take them on as well as address the concerns they will bring—why it is taking so long for the revolution, why did the USSR fail after 70+ years of back-breaking work, will and how socialist democracy be better than electoral-college democracy . . . and many such questions that are blowing in the wind.


[1] In a letter to Franz Mehring, on July 14, 1893, Engels used the phrase “consciousness that is spurious.” This has been translated as “false consciousness.” See Collected Works of Marx and Engels, vol. 50, p. 164.

[2] Gramsci, The Prison Note Books, edited and translated by Joseph Buttigieg, Columbia University Press, 2011.

Image: Al Neal, People’s World



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