In its Statement of Principles, the Marxist-Humanist Initiative asserts:
We base ourselves on the self-activity of movements of workers, women, African-Americans, youth, national minorities, neo-colonialized peoples, and others who are struggling for self-determination in order to freely develop their own human natures. In the U.S., we strive especially to include workers, women, African-Americans, Latinos, other minorities and youth in our project.
Lenin had good reason to be distrustful of the middle class. In the Russian Revolution and the Western European socialist revolutions, there was a strong tendency for middle class radicals to proclaim themselves socialist revolutionaries but to abandon socialism for reformism in moments of challenge and crisis. Lenin considered middle class socialists to be pseudo-socialists (Lenin 1943). The problem was that the middle class and the working class lived and worked in different objective conditions. The middle class revolutionaries were prepared to settle for the reforms that would improve their political and economic situation, but they were not committed to make the sacrifices that would be necessary for the fundamental transformations that the emancipation of the working class required. So Lenin and many Marxists that followed were oriented to the concept of a proletarian vanguard, a revolution led by the industrial working class and not the middle class.
But as socialism evolved in practice in the Third World, the leaders of socialist revolutions were most often from the middle class. As the anti-colonial revolutions of national and social liberation unfolded, a number of middle class leaders took the reformist road, but an equal or greater number followed the revolutionary path, and in many cases made heroic sacrifices in defense of it. This phenomenon was a consequence of objective conditions in the Third World. The colonial and neocolonial situation restrained the economic possibilities for the middle class, thus giving the middle class an objective interest in revolutionary transformation, in which the various popular sectors take power and implement fundamental structural transformations. At the same time, the middle class, as the more educated popular sector, is more exposed to the colonial ideological distortions, so that it also is well represented in reformist movements and/or the counterrevolution. Thus, in the colonial/neocolonial situation, the middle class is actively present in the revolution, but also in reformism and in the counterrevolution. The middle class is divided, often playing a leading role in both the revolution and the counterrevolution.
In the case of the Cuban Revolution, for example, many of the great revolutionaries were of the white middle class: Máximo Gómez, José Martí, Julio Antonio Mella, Ruben Martínez Villena, Antonio Guiteras, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. They played an important role in a revolutionary process that that sought to develop an alternative to colonial and neocolonial domination and to implement a fundamental social transformation. It was a revolution that creatively synthesized Marxism-Leninism with the Third World perspective of national liberation, developing in practice a revolution that was led by the various sectors that formed the people, including professionals, workers, peasants, women, blacks, whites, peasants, and mulattoes. And it formulated its revolution as such, as revolution of, by and for the people (see various posts in the category Cuban history).
In the case of the United States, there was a strong tendency for Marxist political parties to rigidly, uncreatively and superficially assume that a socialist revolution in the United States would be led by the working class, understood as the industrial working class and manual workers, and not middle class entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and professionals. This approach limited the capacity of the Marxist parties to seize the opportunity provided by the popular revolution of 1968, which in fact was a revolution in which white students played a role far more central than the organized industrial working class.
With the collapse of the US popular revolution in the 1970s, there emerged in the United States a species of identity politics, in which reformist proposals were put forward by and on behalf of particular sectors, such as blacks, women, Latinos, and gays, with environmentalists also making specific reformist proposals. Sensing that its classic formulation of a working class vanguard has been out of touch with the post-1960s trends, the Marxist parties have moved to adjustment of their classic formulation, appealing not only to workers but also to blacks, Latinos, women and gays.
There is in this the failure to appreciate the pivotal role that the middle class will play in the revolutionary processes of our era. Prior to 1970, when the world-system entered a profound systemic crisis, the middle and working classes of the core nations had a short-term interest in reform as against revolution, because the world-system could afford to concede reforms to the middle and working classes of the core, on the economic base of the superexploitation of Third World labor. But the world-system is now in crisis. In order to maintain the system, the global elite since 1980 has been rolling back all concessions to the core popular classes, and it has waged an attack on states in a form that threatens the future of humanity. The middle and working classes in the core no longer have a short-term interest in preserving the structures of the system. Like the middle class in the colonial-neocolonial situation from 1917 to the present, the middle and working classes of the core today have an interest in revolutionary transformation, that is, the taking of power by the people so that fundamental transformations in the interest of the people will be implemented.
But can they discern this interest? Can the middle and working classes see through the ideological distortions and see their interest in revolutionary transformation? We do not yet know. What we can see is a battle of ideas in the core, in which the consciousness and political comportment of the middle class will be of central importance.
So we have to set aside the historically dated conception of a working class vanguard, even as adjusted by the also inadequate identity politics of the time. We have to call our people to historical and political reflection, so that they can understand the social sources and the social solutions to the structural crisis of the world-system. We have to call our people to alliance and solidarity with the anti-imperialist movements of social and national liberation in the Third World, for they represent the key to the socialist transformation of the world-system. And we have to call all of our people, including white middle class men.
Think carefully before you dismiss white middle class men, for some of them are the descendants of Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, who brought with them to American shores the teachings of the Irish nationalists and of Marx. Let us call them to reflection and action. They just might remember from where they came and who they are, if we remind them. The history of revolutions teaches us that not all will respond, but surely some will, and their participation will be decisive.
Lenin, V.I. 1943. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers.
Key words: Humanist-Marxist Initiative, Marx, vanguard, working class, middle class, revolution