An Exchange on History From the Bottom Up

The following exchange was initiated when Staughton Lynd, one of the great historian activists of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, wrote to a number of other historians, including Noel. We have deleted the names of the others. Several days later, Noel responded. We do not know if any of the others responded or if the discussion was continued.

December 24, 2015

From: Brother Staughton (Lynd)

As you all know from a variety of interactions with me, I have been stewing about certain questions having to do with the practice of history from the bottom up, the relationship of anarchism and Marxism, and the concept of accompaniment.

I know that these questions take a distinctive form in my encounters with each of you. But I am 86. I am in good health but do not know how much time I have. Two of my closest friends, David Dellinger and Howard Zinn, died when they were about a year older than I am now. Hence the consuming desire to offer my thoughts to all of you for what use they may be.

The Many-Headed Practice of History from the Bottom Up

As a group, we who practice history from below have recently lost David Montgomery, Alfred Young, and Howard Zinn. All of them grew up in the era of the Popular Front, 1935–45. David Montgomery almost blocked the publication of a book I edited on the “alternative unionism of the early 1930s” because my introduction was so critical of the template John L. Lewis imposed on the cio: collective bargaining agreements with no-strike and management prerogative clauses. I tried to confront Al Young with the dissonance between his loving portraits of revolutionary artisans and the fact that in city after city the artisans not only supported the new constitution of 1787 but staged elaborate parades on its behalf. He restricted his comments to the artistic ingenuity of the artisan floats in the parades: he thought they signified the emergence of a working-class culture. The last book on which he worked, Revolutionary Founders, continued to celebrate the artisans as a revolutionary vanguard, disregarding the alliance of artisans with the moneyed class in 1787. Finally, I was unable to induce Howard Zinn to discuss, either with me or publicly, why sncc disintegrated so rapidly after the mountain-top experience of Freedom Summer. My own conclusion is that sncc failed to develop an economic program comparable to “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War.

I would like to see those of us who continue to do history from the bottom up make some effort to develop common perspectives. This would be a comradely endeavor, like the history workshops and journals of British Left historians after World War II.

I believe that The Many-Headed Hydra represents the most ambitious and effective attempt at synthesis historians from the bottom up have attempted. Marcus and Peter, if I present my thoughts in the form of a response to your book it is not because I disrespect it, but for the opposite reason: I see in it the best work to date.

One more preliminary thought. I have been very much affected by reading Harper Lee’s “new” (actually, first) book, Go Set A Watchman. It is more raw and, I suspect, truthful than To Kill a Mockingbird. There is a heart-breaking sequence in which Atticus offers to defend a black man who, when drunk, ran over and killed another African American. Scout (here in her mid-twenties) initially celebrates her father’s apparently principled offer. Then she learns that he wants to take the case to prevent the naacp from providing representation and challenging an all-white jury. Atticus, who unforgettably confronts a local lynch mob in Mockingbird, in this book is revealed to be the chairman of the local White Citizens’ Council. Scout denounces him. He elicits from her agreement with his two key assumptions:

  1. The federal government must be decentralized;
  2. African Americans are not yet ready to be full citizens.

It is the ideology of the Solid South from Jefferson to the Tea Party. And the Left, I fear, offers nothing so deep-rooted and imbedded.

The Stadial View of History

When Alice was going to Pitt Law School, she and I shared several meals with Marcus at a little Near Eastern restaurant in the neighborhood.

Marcus used two terms I had never heard before: a “stadial view of history” and “antinomianism.” He said that he and Peter rejected the first and embraced the second.

The stadial view of history is presumably that which posits a sequence of historical “stages”: slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, Communism. Once again looking at Hydra I think I understood for the first time what the issue concerning “stadialism” is all about.

Why might Marcus and Peter reject stadialism thus defined? They will have to speak for themselves but I suspect the answer is that they discern some qualities in the life of lower-class humanity circa 1640 to 1800 that were lost in subsequent eras. What were these qualities? Perhaps, it seems to me, what might be called (with Peter’s permission) a “commons of experience.” That is, like the ocean currents that are displayed as the book opens, human beings during this century and a half of primitive accumulation circulated throughout the Atlantic world as slaves, seamen, soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners, and so on. This wide exposure to a brutal and hierarchical world generated an ever-renewed insurgency on behalf of comradeship, compassion, intrepid resistance, and as Edward Thompson says of Blake, love.

The view of the Communist Manifesto is that such confrontations as are set forth in Hydra were preliminary skirmishes, and that as time passed working-class resistance became broader, more continuous, more clearly defined. In contrast, anti-stadialism as I now understand it seeks to acknowledge the reality that as workers were so to speak penned into unvarying locations of struggle—that is, as enclosure drove the working class to cities and the factory displaced artisanship—a certain cosmopolitan sense of the class divide was lost. And it is not only a matter of class. Marcus and Peter insist that the three founders of the London Corresponding Society were a white man, a white woman, and a much-traveled black man whom even Edward Thompson seems to overlook.

This critique of stadialism would have a good deal in common with what C. Wright Mills, Perry Anderson, Simone Weil and many others propose regarding Marxist “stages”: the working class, they say, was more radical during the onset of capitalism (for instance as exemplified by Chartism) when artisans were living through the denigration of their autonomy and craftsmanship than they were later, after they had become “factory hands.”

Then too there was the parallel exchange of views between Russian radicals and Marx concerning the possibility of building on the institution of the village mir, and transitioning directly to socialism without having to endure a capitalist stage of development. I think the only thing I learned at Harvard was from a presentation by the Marxist scholar Karl Korsch. He had spent time with manuscripts left by Marx and concluded:

  1. As Marx aged he more and more lost the ability to conceptualize and synthesize, busying himself with endless note-taking and, in the case at hand, learning Russian so that he could read Russian statistics and better respond to Vera Zasulich and other Russian correspondents. (This came home to me because my own father had passed through something very similar.)
  2. Marx wrote draft after draft of a response to the Russians, in the end sending them a short and enigmatic note that avoided definite conclusions.


I believe it is the case that Marcus and Peter derive their emphasis on antinomianism from Edward Thompson, and in particular, from Thompson’s posthumously published book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (London: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Thompson writes that he believes Blake belonged to “a particular intellectual tradition: antinomianism” (Witness, p. xiii).

“Antinomianism” was a term used by seventeenth-century religious radicals, and as such, ought to be attractive to the world’s only Quaker Marxist, myself. (This is a joke.)

What does it mean? In a less-than-thorough search in Witness I found only one example of a definition by someone who believed in it. William Walwyn, “the quiet and rational theorist of the Levellers,” wrote in a pamphlet published in 1649:

I, through God’s goodnesse, had long before been established in that part of doctrine (called then, Antinomian) of free justification by Christ alone; and so my heart was at much more ease and freedom, than others, who were entangled with those yokes of bondage, unto which Sermons and Doctrines mixt of Law and Gospel, do subject distressed consciences (Witness, p. 23).

Elsewhere in his chapter devoted to a definition of the term, Thompson offers his own paraphrase: “antinomianism” reflects “the argument between law and love” and the “old opposition, Moral Law/Gospel” (Witness, pp. 19, 25). The “central theme” of the tradition was expressed in what had become, by the early 1650s, “fairly commonplace antinomian terms: those who are justified not by Works of the Law but by faith are ‘risen with Christ, they act in love’ ” (Witness, p. 30).

What does all this have to do with social justice and the oppression of the poor? For this we turn to The Many-Headed Hydra. The first mention of “antinomianism” appears to be a reference to “libertarian antinomianism” in the British city of Bristol during the Civil War of the 1640s. There the authors state that those who would later become Baptists and Quakers “were directly associated with the revolutionary victories of the New Model Army and with the organization and birth of the Levellers” (Hydra, p. 80). Their meetings in Bristol were said to be “filled with controversies, insomuch that every meeting almost was filled with disputes and debates [so] that they were in great confusion.” But in these meetings any brother or sister was free “to propose his doubt of, or their desire of understanding, any portion of scripture,” and members of the congregation would speak “one by one and then be silent” (Hydra, pp. 80–81).

Unrest among slaves and indentured servants in the New World was blamed on Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians, Quakers and Ranters, all antinomians in the Hydra narrative. The Virginia legislature “banned the entry of Quakers into the colony, called for the imprisonment of those already there, and forbade their meetings and publications” (Hydra, pp. 135–138).

James Otis’s famous 1761 address in which he asserted “the rights of the Negroes” is said by the authors to have offered “an antinomian account” of the state of nature in which man was “subject to no law, but the law written on his heart” (Hydra, p. 224). Thomas Paine, whose father was a Quaker, “awakened an antinomian abolitionism from a previous age” (Hydra, p. 227). While these attributions of antinomianism to secular radicals are not particularly convincing to me, the long chapter on Robert Wedderburn is very much so. Child of an enslaved woman and a white doctor, Wedderburn believed he had ascended “from a legal state of mind, into a state of Gospel Liberty,” and had experienced deliverance “from the power or authority of the law, considering himself to be…under Grace” (Hydra, p. 322).

Let us assume that a tradition of religious radicalism helped to keep alive all manner of resistance to the world of emerging capitalism and slavery. Where does this leave us today?


What Marcus and Peter describe reminds me very much of the South in the 1960s, when everything happened in African American churches, and sncc staffers, whatever their personal beliefs, functioned as preachers. However, this one experience apart, what is our situation today when religion seems to be a possession of the Right?

Spokespersons and the Rank and File

First, what is the relationship between the radical prophet and insurgent social movements?

What is celebrated in Hydra is certainly not the mere fact of being poor, or being oppressed. Nor is it simply a set of ideas. It has something to do with the spirit in which persons who were poor and oppressed acted, sang, and spoke in difficult circumstances. In what they did they embodied, at least for an historical moment, a better society.

Think of how Edward Thompson pursued so persistently the obscure Protestant sect known as Muggletonians, and the friend and family relationships that may have existed in the urban neighborhood in which Blake grew up. Surely Thompson was looking for a connection between Blake and social movements, so to speak a demographic platform from which Blake could be presumed to have spoken.

Think as well about the relationship between Karl Marx and other participants in the First International, and between Friedrich Engels and the German Social Democratic Party. In each case I think that the views of the Marxist spokesperson were only partially accepted by the organization for which he wrote position papers. (But one of the great and most moving facts of radical history is Marx’s defense of the Paris Commune even though its creators and martyrs by and large belonged to the anarchist faction that opposed him in the First International.)

I have lived with this problem for almost fifty years when I consider the relationship of John Sargent, Marty Glaberman, Stan Weir, Ed Mann and John Barbero to the rank-and-file labor movements that arose in the 1930s and have continued in some form to the present.

And here’s what I think, deriving my explanatory paradigm from men I have known personally and then asking to what extent that formulation also applies to persons I know only through written historical sources.

Sargent, Mann, and Barbero were repeatedly elected to local union office. They were also socialists with a small “s.” But I submit that they were not elected because of their socialism but because of their militancy, and indeed, that if confronted with their socialism most of those influenced by them would have rejected it. (See accounts in Lynd and Lynd, ed., Rank and File, and my Solidarity Unionism and Doing History from the Bottom Up.) Likewise Weir movingly describes the intimacy he and his fellow workers experienced when Stan laid aside the political program his Leftist sect had directed him to advocate, and what he called the “family at work” would go to one of their homes at the end of the night shift and share a meal.

I understand that for the men I have named a belief in socialism, and militant leadership on the shop floor, were twisted together into a single braided rope. I don’t contest that: I glory in it. But the same was not true for the men who worked with, elected, and followed them when Sargent (assisted by shop steward Nick Migas, also in Rank and File) was able to orchestrate wildcats because there was no contract with a no-strike clause, or when Ed Mann got up on a bench in the washroom and led the men out of the mill to protest Tony’s death.

It was the same way for Tom Paine. He was unable to understand why the Founding Fathers (with the partial exception of Jefferson) embraced him when he wrote the Crisis pamphlets on a drumhead as the Continental Army retreated across New Jersey, but ignored or condemned him when he was imprisoned in France for opposing the execution of the king or returned to the United States for a lonely old age. The author of Common Sense was celebrated. The author of The Rights of Man, Agrarian Justice, and The Age of Reason could not find readers in the new bourgeois republic.

To sum up in a sentence: We should beware of a tendency to ascribe to a movement that on occasion accepts a man or woman as a militant leader all of that leader’s radical thoughts and writings.

Faith and Facts

Marcus and Peter discovered radical passions in the lower depths of society that conventional historians had ignored.

My own historical research more often than not convinced me that a person or movement, assumed to have been motivated by ideology, in fact was prompted by economic interest. I concluded that the Northwest Ordinance was not a partial step toward abolition as has been assumed but a betrayal of the slave by opening the Southwest to plantation slavery. And it was not just a matter of the motivation of the rich. I also concluded that tenant farmers and artisans viewed as groups were interested in the completely understandable pursuit of economic survival, not in the prophetic ideas of a few spokespersons. And the same is true of steelworkers as I have known them since the early 1970s.

It can be misleading to connect militant dots and understand them as a radical pattern. There is no group of significant size in the United States at the present time permeated by a praiseworthy social idealism that has survived over time. Measured by social density and longevity, the Right has had a far more coherent and durable presence than the Left.

“Anarchism,” I believe, has a number of regrettable characteristics but is an indispensable element in any social movement because it preserves the concept and practice of exemplary action. Some things are better communicated when they are acted out than by any conceivable set of words.

“Marxism” demands that the phenomena of the moment be set against an institutional backdrop without which the morning’s news, the most recent strike, or the forthcoming election cannot be accurately assessed. However, not all Marxist analyses are equally valid. A National Liberation Front spokesman whom I met on the way to Hanoi in 1965 was a far more accurate forecaster (“we are going to win, professor”) than any Marxist analyst I have come across in the United States.

What is fundamentally at issue is what it means for radical historians to unearth ideologies that they admire but do not personally believe or do not find to be available in the societies in which they live. Antinomians rejected not only secular laws but also what they called the Moral Law, presumably including the Ten Commandments and Jewish ritual observances. But what about the mandates of Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the poor and the imprisoned. Catholics call these the Works of Mercy. Antinomians rejected Works as well as the Law, privileging naked faith.

I believe that the place to begin building community on the Left has something to do with family. Family is given to all of us by nature as a community within which life places us without special effort by ourselves. When we join more artificially-created entities we imagine them as partaking in the best aspects of the natural family. In the labor movement even stodgy bureaucrats address one another as “brother” and “sister.” sncc used to describe itself as “a band of brothers and sisters standing in a circle of love.”

Alice counters: How do we overcome feuds within families (e.g., Cain and Abel)? How do we overcome ethnicity—either you are a member of the clan or you are regarded as other (e.g., Greek or barbarian)?


I would be happy to pursue these matters with any of you on paper or in person, one on one or as part of a small group process.

December 27, 2015

Dear Brother Staughton (and all),

From Fellow Worker Noel (Ignatiev)

Thanks to Staughton for inviting me to take part in this “comradely endeavor.” I have always been better at exploring differences, even to the point of drawing lines (which can be useful), than I have been at seeking areas of agreement; out of respect for him I shall try to take part in the spirit I think he intends, so that even when pointing out differences I hope to do so in a way that sheds more light than heat on the subject. As prelude, it is difficult for me to imagine a world without Staughton, but, as Prince Hal reminded Falstaff, no longer able to number myself among the youth (tomorrow marks my seventy-fifth birthday), I must face reality; as Othello said, “No more of that.” (I hope you enjoy the Shakespeare references; some of Shakespeare’s characters are more real to me than people I pass daily in the street. In that connection, I recommend a book by Ashwin Desai, Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island, about the uses prisoners of varying persuasions, denied “political” materials, made of Shakespeare and other classics of European literature.)

I agree with Staughton that the popular front imposed a limitation on the leftist historians he names (and others); I would specify that this limitation—one might call it a blindspot—was manifest especially in regard to what used to be called the “Negro Question,” and made it difficult for those who shared it to see a pattern from the Constitution to suffrage (both universal white male and female) to the New Deal, in which many of what were hailed as progressive victories were achieved at the expense of black people, whose interests were routinely sacrificed in the name of popular unity. Jesse may remember an email exchange between us a few years back in which in response to his claim that supporters of the British tended to be from among the dominant classes I cited the example of the slaves (many of whom considered themselves Loyalists), and maintained that placing them at the center of the story would lead us to reassess the Revolution beyond acknowledging the limitations we all recognize. (Gerald Horne calls it The Counter-Revolution of 1776 and compares Washington to Ian Smith.) Is the world a better place because the Patriots defeated the Loyalists? Is the question beside the point?

In 1786 the rulers of Massachusetts hired a private army to put down Shays’ Rebellion; six years later those same rulers passed a law requiring every able-bodied “white” man to possess a weapon and serve in the militia. Tom Paine, the best of the revolutionary generation, appealed for relief to Jefferson, and was disappointed (surprised?) when it was not forthcoming. I remember (or misremember—if I am wrong I hope he will correct me) asking Peter if he had addressed Paine’s waffling on slavery and his replying that he mostly evaded it. Only Staughton, in his work on the Hudson River tenants, does not identify the Revolution with Progress, however limited and with whatever reservations, and treats working-class Loyalists with as much sympathy as he does Patriots. (As added exceptions I would note Horne and, curiously, Simon Schama, Rough Crossings. In this connection I call your attention to a novel by M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, in which the central character, a slave, refers to “the slave-driving general and his rebel army.”)

Staughton asks, “What is the relationship between the radical prophet and insurgent social movements?” That is the key question. Whiteness no longer plays the same role it once did in cementing capitalist hegemony, and the categories of race, nation and even class are no longer fixed as they were during the period of the Petrograd/Detroit proletariat. In this regard we are back (or forward) to the eighteenth century, the period of Hydra. Nevertheless the task remains, to refract working-class activity into those aspects that point toward the possibility of a new society and those that reinforce existing social relations. Refract. I derive the notion from Capital, volume I, chapter 1, where Marx examines the two-fold character of the labor embodied in the commodity; the worker is at the same time a producer of use-values for a human community and a producer of commodities and seller of the commodity labor-power.

Staughton takes Peter and Marcus to task for exaggerating continuities and “inventing” a tradition where none exists. I have a different complaint. My complaint is that they do not take into account that both sides are grounded in capitalist social relations. I agree that Hydra is the best book yet produced on the class struggles of the period; I have used it for ten years as the main text in a class I teach. Its weaknesses are most evident in the chapter on the Revolution. Hydra recovers and celebrates the role of sailors, slaves and commoners in sparking the movement for separation from Britain. It also documents the actions of the slaves who ran away on their own or joined Dunmore. Yet in failing to examine the relation between these two classes of activity it leaves unanswered the question, how did the actions of sailors, slaves and commoners reproduce their own oppression and that of others.

I view the role of tradition differently from Staughton, and also from Peter and Marcus. In my view tradition ordinarily plays little role in shaping popular struggles. For example, I do not think that popular memory of the iww was important in shaping the struggles of the cio period. I do not think that the memory of Abolition played a large part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The masses learn from life, not books. The radical prophet learns from life and books. Nevertheless, the role of the revolutionary prophet is crucial. It works like this: the tradition lives in the memories of the revolutionary prophets, and guides them in their interventions in the mass movement. Thus the memory of the iww tradition of direct action shaped the Flint sitdown. Knowing the histories of Nat Turner, John Brown and the Underground Railroad guided James Foreman and others in drawing a line between direct action and the course of legalism and reformism. Once a new level of struggle is attained, it changes the world so that a return to the old is no longer possible.

At one time slavery was thought of as natural. Today, not a single person can be found who shares that view. Not even the most extreme of white supremacists, who wish to ship black people to Africa or exterminate them entirely, seeks to restore slavery. That may be obvious, but it is worth thinking about: the actions of millions during the Civil War period so transformed the world that what once seemed natural is now inconceivable. But those actions did not grow out of tradition; they arose out of necessity—either accept the domination of the slave system over the whole country or overthrow it entirely—and overturned centuries (millennia) of tradition.

Take a less grandiose example: Collective bargaining and features that arose out of it, including seniority, paid holidays, etc., are established as norms, even in places where unions do not exist. (Perhaps my generalization does not apply in all spheres and among all groups of workers, but on the whole I think it does.) In spite of the bumper stickers proclaiming “Unions, the people who brought you the weekend,” the acceptance is not due to millions of workers knowing the history of past struggles but because those struggles established a certain standard that cannot be overturned (even though it can be chipped away at). The same is true of the electoral system, religious tolerance, free public education, the rights of women and other things now widely taken for granted. All these pose a problem for prophets of revolution in that all of them, which arose out of popular struggles, have been transformed into obstacles. The prophets of revolution have to take a critical stance toward all of them, with a view toward transcending them. How to do that is, of course, open for discussion: for example, I think Staughton’s effort a few years ago to promote solidarity unionism was misguided in that it attempted to infuse revolutionary content into an identity that could not encompass it. For me the task is to transcend unionism, not revitalize it. I much prefer the notions of councils, or solidarity committees, or family, or some term no one has yet thought of, as expressions of what is needed for the next step. Is the approach I advocate vanguardism, which everyone here has rejected? I don’t think so, because the starting point is not something dreamed up by the Party but an attempt to refract traditions and present expressions in order to determine what is valid for today, and help to generalize them.

I recommend three books I read recently: the first is Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, by Kristin Ross. Two things struck me about it: first, for several years before the Commune erupted, the prophets of revolution (mainly gathered in the First International) devoted themselves to encouraging people to imagine what a new society would be like, organizing discussions that addressed issues like combining intellectual and manual training, the function of art, and relations between the sexes; a number of the ideas that emerged out of those discussions were implemented in the few weeks of the Commune’s existence, and became part of the heritage (tradition) of the working class in France and elsewhere; the second is Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, by David Roediger. The Civil War and Reconstruction (taken as a single process) was, along with the Commune, perhaps the only revolution not disgraced by the actions of its supporters; its history is worth studying and Dave’s book is a useful contribution. The third is Karl Marx and the Future of the Human, by Cyril Smith. Smith (now deceased) was a Dunayevska follower; his book is an effort to bring out the contrast between Marx and the “Marxists.” He stresses that Marx was not primarily concerned with hatching schemes to reorganize society but trying to examine the conditions under which human beings could establish new relations among themselves, “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” He also separates Marx and “historical materialism,” which he says was a subsequent contribution of Engels, Plekhanov and Lenin (brought to its ineffable peak by Stalin), and documents that Marx was in continual dialogue with great idealist and even mystical thinkers of the past. If Staughton describes himself (jokingly) as the world’s only Quaker Marxist, I call myself an Anabaptist, which you can take as a joke if you like.

I have become increasingly interested in the First International. (Some of you may recall that about fifteen years ago I launched the “Committee for the First International.” It went nowhere.) The fi was open to all real tendencies that were not mainly concerned with recruiting to their sect. (As I understand it, Marx’s battles with Bakounin were not over anarchism per se but over Bakounin’s determination to rule the International or destroy it.) It was possible because at the time it was formed every workers’ organization was in some sense opposed to private property and favored a different society. That is obviously no longer the case today. Moreover, I would say that, notwithstanding his mistakes, Lenin’s drawing the line against organizations that supported their own bourgeoisie during the Imperialist War seems valid. (I read that Lenin invited the iww to join the Third International. He might have done better enrolling the International in the iww. Staughton, what is the title of that book you recommended on the iww?) I would not be opposed to meeting with Maoists and Trotskyists so long as they are doing real work, but I’ll be damned if I will have my skull battered by Avakian or the Spartacist League. It might be useful to study the First International and sncc together; both were born out of an upsurge, were formed to accomplish a specific task, neither had a “line,” both made great contributions while they lasted and left a legacy we can be proud of.

Well, as the boys on Cartalk say, it’s happened again. You’ve wasted another perfectly good hour, listening to me rant about historians I look up to. My defense is that I am motivated by the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.


The title requested by Noel is Eric Chester. The Wobblies in their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era (Praeger, 2014).

Brother S.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. David Schaff,

    Your discussion about what impetus causes revolutionary activity raises the same or a similar problem that Marx posed to himself, and in my opinion, Marx’s answer to this problem led him to decide to leave philosophy behind. Marx’s approach to this question I hope to show can help focus this discussion in this direction.
    Marx’s answer to this question is in notational form and traditionally referred to as Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. Although written as notes, these notes of Marx’s can be fleshed out to provide an answer to the problem in this discussion. By ‘fleshed out’, I mean provide the context giving rise to his theses. This can be done by taking Marx’s method seriously — i.e., by focusing on the concrete material world and applying that level of concreteness to his theses. In doing so, I believe we can show the social factors that not only contribute to how the question of revolutionary activity was possible to formulate (articulate) but how those social factors generate new conditions for revolutionary action. As Marx’s approach was polemical and this particular notion came from his polemic (critique) of Feuerbach, we should start there.
    Let me begin with the notion of ‘civil society’, a relatively new concept of that day and one which Marx reformulated from Feuerbach’s understanding of it. When Marx talked about ‘civil society’, he envisioned a notion that was conceptually expressible as a result of a social history that produced the conditions that enabled a formulation of such a notion as ‘civil society’. That is to say, ‘civil society’ emerged as a notion that is part of a larger conceptual scheme that “reflects” a particular type of social order.
    Feuerbach’s ideas about religious sentiment, for example, reflect the level of social development of his time. Feuerbach had analyzed religious sentiment psychologically – as a sentiment of abstract individuals. Feuerbach thus articulated ‘civil society’ to be all transactions of individuals and everything that comes about is understood to be either an intended or an unintended consequence of the actions of one or more individual. But his theory suffered as a result of conceiving of individuals as abstractions and failed to see sentiment as a mode of expression characteristic of a particular type of social order (8th thesis). That is Feuerbach expressed what was made available in a particular type of social order – one informed by civil society.
    Thus, individuals as abstractions are such as they are abstracted from their social relationships. What is important to note in Feuerbach’s conception is that Feuerbach’s abstraction wasn’t simply a mistake in his theory that could be fixed, but reflected a contradiction already embodied in civil society’s institutionalized social life., i.e., how humans really are and how they understand themselves to be.
    Individuals in Feuerbach’s time, and even more so today, are on the one hand taken to be the product of causal agencies over which they have no control, but on the other hand, are thought of as autonomous agents and specifically the self-conception of theorists as themselves being autonomous agents holding theories independent of their social contexts. In Marx’s example, workers have their work constrained (you might say, have their work cut out for them) in that work is ordered in mechanical ways as capitalism purposely supplants worker skills with machines as a way of expanding surplus labor. Thus, workers lose control over their own abilities and see themselves as having no control. On the other hand, we have the self-conception of theorists as themselves being autonomous agents holding theories independent of their social contexts – much like the radical prophet who relied on invented traditions to lead people to revolution, as criticized here by Staughton Lynn.
    The trouble with such a conception of theorists, according to Marx, is that these theorists see themselves as uniquely positioned to legislate others — i.e., this kind of radical prophet is the kind who took herself to know in advance what needs to be done to effect needed social change and thus is the one entitled to manage that change. Instead of a prophesizing practice, Marx looked to another kind of practice; one that transforms in the activity itself — a self-transformative activity, an activity that precedes any theorizing about its subject — a revolutionary activity.
    For our purposes here, what is needed isn’t a prophet that can energize the people, although that may be one facet of what is required. What is needed is the activity of a social practice that in its activity, it changes the very conditions that ordinarily reproduced the old notions, as in this example, of individuals. Importantly, that change need not be directed by a prophet. Indeed, just the notion of ‘prophet’ invokes Feuerbach’s individual. It may well be that the prophet is the person who first sees the significance of an activity that is of the transformative sort. The prophet’s success in communicating the significance of the changes being produced will depend on whether her ability to communicate itself becomes a material force. But for now, a prophet is beside the point.
    A contemporary example may be in order, and such a current example could be the Coronavirus pandemic. The transformative social activity (rather than that of an individual) posited by Marx, in the coronavirus situation could be the actions taken by the government to compensate those who suffered the economic fall out of the government’s ameliorative actions to contain the spread of the virus. That the government meant to save the system isn’t what’s relevant. What’s relevant is that the action taken transforms the present conditions into new conditions readily available for production of new social relations.
    Marx uses the development of machinery for his example. By producing newer and better machines for production, the machines become available to workers who engage in this transformative activity — a revolutionary activity — that brings about socialism. Machines are the tools (the material means) for bringing about a revolution and any theory, tradition, etc. advocated by the social agitator would also be tools for social change only when they are tools that work in concert with all the other tools to produce the new conditions. It’s not wine before its time.

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