This article was adapted from an introduction course taught at the YCL’s Harry Pollitt school at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. For more introductory materials, check out the Back2Basics series and other resources at ycl.org.uk/learning
When asked what makes us different to other organisations on the Left, a comrade summarised it beautifully:
“As Marxist-Leninists, we put Marxist theory into Leninist action, whereby we do not separate ourselves from the struggle but are ourselves workers within it. We acknowledge that we cannot mobilise without first educating ourselves and others on the principles of Marxism and using this education as a foundation for mobilisation. This way, we can make real, material change to the working conditions of the workers around us who, like us, are exploited or superexploited by capitalism, and thus adding the Leninist to the Marxist. Class war isn’t just something to be studied, it’s something we must win.” Or in Marx’s words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
But how can we change the world if we’re unable to understand it correctly? So enters Dialectical Materialism, a powerful analytical tool and the philosophy that Marxism-Leninism is based on.
First, let’s take these concepts individually. Lenin wrote that “[t]he fundamental premise of materialism is the recognition of the external world, of the existence of things outside and independent of our mind” and “[d]ialectics is the study of the contradiction within the essence of things.”
For example, in order for water, a material object, to evaporate and change into a gas (a change in quality), the amount of heat applied to the liquid must be increased (a change in quantity). The contradiction of too much heat applied to the limits of the liquid is then resolved in a new form. But from this contradiction, a new one emerges. Quantitative changes lead to qualitative changes, and vice versa, and nothing stays the same forever. So go the laws of dialectics.
And just as these laws govern the natural world, so too do they govern society. Dialectical materialism is therefore our way of analysing problems in society, identifying solutions, and affecting change to create a better world. Karl Marx, a student of the dialectics taught by the philosopher Hegel, did just this, applying dialectical materialism to understand how capitalism worked and how we could move beyond it.
Capitalism, he recognised, was a system which revolved around the production of commodities for sale. When a manufacturer produces a bag of salt, they’re not interested in what the salt is used for after it’s sold (its use value: e.g., to season food), but in its value on the market (its exchange value: what it’s worth compared to other commodities). Capitalism is therefore unique to other systems which came before because it’s dominated not by production for use, but production for exchange, and this leads to all kinds of chaos and waste within our society, where resources aren’t distributed according to need, but according to what’s most profitable.
The exchange value of a commodity is constantly changing. If there’s a lot of pepper on the market but not much salt, then one bag of salt might become worth two or three bags of pepper, etc. Values change based on supply and demand, but one of the mysteries of liberal economics was the question of why supply and demand wasn’t the be all and end all of a commodity’s value. If value was only governed by supply and demand, then during a mild food shortage, a loaf of bread would rise above the price of a private jet.
Furthermore, any commodity can be exchanged for any other commodity, which means all commodities must contain hidden within them a unit of value that they share. That unit is labour. All useful commodities become more valuable depending on the average amount of labour power that is required to make them, and unskilled labour, without the added equations of training, education, experience, etc., is the most basic unit of all.
Let’s look at a few examples of capitalism in action:
- There are two workers. One is a salt-maker and wants pepper. The other is a pepper-maker and wants salt. The two commodities are of equal exchange values so they can trade them directly, and since they have only exchanged the value of their own labour power, neither is any richer once the trade is complete.
- The trade becomes more complicated when the salt-maker wants something with a much higher exchange value, like a gold watch. A watch is worth an extremely large amount of salt, but the watch-maker probably doesn’t want that much salt in exchange, so instead, they use money. The salt-maker sells all his salt to a small business owner and uses the money to buy the watch.
But again, despite the introduction of money, none of them have become any richer. Again, the two workers have only swapped the value of their own labour power. As for the small business owner, they could make money, but that depends on their skill as a trader, on supply and demand, and on the luck of the market, and when the market is unpredictable, they still might lose…
…But that all changes when labour itself becomes a commodity, and the workers are forced to sell their labour to an employer for a wage.
- Under capitalism, capitalists use private property to extract wealth from workers. One buys a factory and has workers create commodities in it for a wage. Another becomes a landlord, buying a house and letting workers sleep in it for rent. The worker can’t afford their own factory or house, so the system forces them to rely on the capitalists, instead.
First, they go to work in the factory. They work a nine-hour day, and produce one commodity every three hours, worth ten pounds each. But when the day is over, the capitalist takes the three commodities produced by the worker’s labour and gives them a wage instead, which is worth less than the commodities they’ve produced, e.g., twenty pounds. This capitalist wants this wage to stay at a bare minimum to maximise profit, i.e., just enough for the worker to survive and come into work again the next day.
The worker gives ten pounds to the landlord for rent, and spends the other ten on food and life necessities. Meanwhile, the capitalist sneaks off to market and sells the products of the workers’ labour for a profit. That profit and all profit is stolen labour power, the workers’ surplus value.
So, as we can see, capitalism is a constant class struggle between two main classes: capitalists or the bourgeoisie, who make money purely through property ownership and theft from the workers; and the workers themselves or the proletariat, who sell their labour power to the capitalists for a wage.
There are other classes too, who might work for themselves or live through a combination of their own labour and property ownership, like the petty bourgeois, the small property owner who, come the revolution, may side with the workers, or may side with the capitalists.
The History of Class Struggle
So, what is to be done? How do we resolve the class conflict in order to change society, help the workers, and move beyond capitalism to a more advanced and fairer stage of human society? To answer this question, we can look at history, because as Marx said, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.”
In early hunter-gatherer societies, everything was held in common. We consumed everything we produced so there was no surplus and no classes to claim it. This was known as Primitive Communism.
But as humanity developed, as we developed new tools, technologies, and knowledge, we produced more than we needed to survive. One class seized this surplus while another class worked to produce it: slaves.
Originally, when a conflict occurred, there wasn’t enough food to support the losing party and take a prisoner, so they were either killed or chased away. But in Slave Society, the surplus meant that slaves could be fed in exchange for their labour, turning them into a form of property and a source of wealth. The strongest tribes were the ones with the most slaves.
To prevent the slaves from revolting, the ruling class developed militias, governments, and laws. In other words, the first states were born out of this first class struggle to maintain the system of exploitation as it was and prevent revolution. Even though states pretend to be neutral, they are actually built by and serve as weapons of the ruling class, including today.
As society developed further, slave society moved into Feudalism. Peasants worked the land, produced what they needed to survive, and gave the surplus to the landlords. So still, there was a class struggle: a system maintained by a state, usually led by a king, who was there by something called “divine right” or the will of God. Religion was therefore used as a weapon of the state to maintain ruling class control.
But with the development of complex, expensive machinery, Capitalism developed. Peasants were forced off the land through land enclosures to separate them from the means of production that they needed to sustain themselves and force them into factories. The means of production and survival were priced out of worker control and put under capitalist ownership, who became a new and powerful class. This class challenged the old monarchies and feudal nobilities for power, leading ‘bourgeois’ revolutions and establishing liberal democracies, which are a much more stable system of ruling class control than the direct violence of previous systems.
So, as we can see, Capitalism used to be a revolutionary system and capitalists used to be a revolutionary class. Liberal democracy is somewhat more democratic than the rule of kings, but one contradiction replaced another and we have a new class struggle today: between workers, who want higher wages and lower profits, and capitalists, who want higher profits and lower wages.
Workers and capitalists can never co-exist in harmony because their interests are completely irreconcilable. Capitalist interests are also against the interests of society at large, and now, humanity itself. The only ones who can resolve this contradiction are the working class, because it is in their interests to take back their surplus value, to put it towards bettering human society, and to get rid of the parasitic classes living off their labour.
The working class also has the power to do this because they control production. They can go on strike, shut down society, and they have far greater numbers than the capitalists. But strikes, no matter how large, don’t resolve the class struggle once and for all. To do this, the working class must seize back the means of production in order to organise the economy around human need over private profit: a form of society known as Socialism, but to do this, they must first capture the state.
So, how does the working class do this? Lenin wrote extensively on this subject, learning from his experience of leading the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the first lasting socialist revolution in the history of the world.
Let’s take a look at some of Lenin’s ideas.
The Party and Youth League
The most politically advanced members of the working class will recognise that they need to organise their class in order to capture the state through revolution, so will form an organisation dedicated to that task. The party recognised by the international communist movement as the inheritors of this legacy in Britain and founded in the wake of the Russian Revolution is the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), formerly the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The Party’s youth wing for communists aged between 12–29 is the Young Communist League of Britain (YCL).
Our Party is internationalist, recognising that capitalism is a global system and that the interests of the working class in one country are connected to those in other countries. For this reason, the CPB has relationships with communist parties all over the world, including the ones in power. The CPB works with these parties regularly and meets with them at the annual International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties (IMCWP). The YCL is itself part of a similar international organisation called the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY).
In order to organise as effectively as possible, the Party and Youth League must be democratic, able to resolve internal contradictions fairly, able to mobilise the skills and knowledge of the entire membership, and able to reach the most advanced position or line possible. Once this line is reached, it is the duty of every member to follow it, understanding that it is their responsibility to work to change incorrect lines at appropriate times, but that unity is crucial at all others. Both correct and incorrect lines are the responsibility of the Party as a whole, and this fundamental organisational principle is called Democratic Centralism.
In order to improve, the Party must dedicate itself to Marxist education, so that its members can learn to apply Marxism-Leninism to resolve all kinds of contradictions in society and unite the masses for the final battle and beyond. Building the Party is an extremely difficult task, but it is the only way to lead a successful socialist revolution and capture the state, transforming it from a bourgeois state into a proletarian one, and replacing the dictatorship of the bourgeoise with a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Socialism and Communism
Once this first step is taken and workers seize control, they will work to reclaim lost surplus value, redistribute wealth, and eliminate private property and class differences altogether, using the state to defend this process from both internal and external class enemies. Class and exploitation will still exist, but the working class will use the power of the state to progressively eliminate these backwards forces from society.
Under socialism, distribution is organised on the principle of “from each according to their ability and to each according to their work” and as Marxist-Leninists, we recognise the existence of five actually existing socialist states today: China, Cuba, the DPRK, Laos, and Vietnam.
Once class differences are eliminated, the state will no longer be needed to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat. The process of resource distribution will be reduced to administrative functions, and the state will wither away. We will live in a Communist society without money, class, or the state, where resource distribution is organised on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
In this article, we’ve only covered the basics. Marxism-Leninism is a living, breathing ideology which, through dialectical materialism, can be used to find revolutionary solutions to all kinds of problems as we build toward revolution.
Following unpredictable developments in society, we must analyse new problems, new social relations, and new factors of production. We must also learn to combat competing trends of thought on the Left, such as reformism, anarchism, and Trotskyism, which have historically presented no real path to liberation from capitalism.
This is only the start, and as communists, we dedicate ourselves to a lifetime of study. If you ever want to join an organisation that will help you with that, then join the Young Communist League or the Communist Party of Britain.
Eben Dombay Williams, is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch