The Doctor’s Prescription

The Doctor’s Prescription

[extra to text]

After enduring a bout of flu for too long I decided to visit my GP. He took my blood pressure and then listened to my chest with his stethoscope.

“You should have made an appointment earlier. It’s gone onto your chest. It’s quite badly infected”

He wrote a prescription and then handed it to me. I looked at him half-expecting him to tell me what he had given me…

“It’s an antibiotic. The viral infection has lowered your resistance and produced a bacterial infection in your lungs”

The basic procedure in general practice is to observe and identify the symptoms, make a diagnosis, write a prescription and sometimes give a general prognosis of the diagnosed condition. Come back if it hasn’t cleared after x number of weeks, etc.

The decision of the GP to write a particular prescription is therefore informed by his diagnosis. If the diagnosis is wrong, it is probable that the medicine will not work or might even make things worse. The patient returns and the doctor re-evaluates the situation which further informs his next actions.

‘Prescription’, of course, is not confined to medical practice. To prescribe is to delineate a rule, course or direction of action. It is to lay down a remedy, treatment, ordnance or order for something or other in advance. To effectively issue an injunction. The term derives from the Latin praescribere which means to write or lay down in advance.

The problem with the use of prescriptions in revolutionary politics is their inherently formalistic (undialectical) and fixed character. They set a path in advance for the proletariat in the unfolding, developing class struggle which is forever throwing up new situations, conflicts and ambiguities which cannot be addressed by such a prescriptive formalism. Such a way of proceeding may be ‘faithful’ to the word taken out of the context of its historical locus but it always contradicts the dialectical spirit of Marx. ‘Prescriptions’ in medicine are necessary but in revolutionary politics they constitute the elements out of which dogmatism arises and crystallises. And then we have a doctrine made out of a set of mantras and incantations which is absolutely unfit for anything vaguely ‘revolutionary’.

Sounds familiar? It will if you have ever been a member of one of the many left-wing sects and grouplets because ‘prescriptive’ is a term which describes and encapsulates the approach and methods of organisation of the left-wing sectarian groups in relation to the class movement of the proletariat.

In his criticism of Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany in the 1860s, Marx wrote, in a letter to Schweitzer, that..

he gave his agitation from the very beginning the character of a religious sect, as does every man who claims to have in his pocket a panacea for the suffering masses. In fact, every sect is religious. Furthermore, precisely because he was a founder of a sect, he denied any natural connection with the earlier movement in Germany or abroad. He fell into the same error as Proudhon, of not seeking the real basis for his agitation in the actual elements of the class movement, but of trying to prescribe the course of the movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe.


You yourself have had personal experience of the contradictions between a sectarian and a class movement. The sect seeks its raison d’etre and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement

Later in the letter Marx writes in regard to Lassalle’s group that…

The dissolution of the General Association of German Workers gave you the opportunity to accomplish a great step forward and to declare, if it were necessary, that a new stage of development had been reached and that the sectarian movement was now ready to merge into the class movement and to completely abandon its separation. As far as its true aims were concerned, the sect, like all earlier working class sects, would bring them as an enriching element into the general movement. Instead you have in fact demanded of the class movement that it subordinate itself to a particular sectarian movement. Those who are not your friends have concluded from this that you are trying under all circumstances to preserve your ‘own workers’ movement’.

And in relation to his position regarding the structure and organisation of trade unions that….

As for the draft of the rules, I regard it as fundamentally misguided and I think I have as much experience as any contemporary in the field of trade unions. Without going into details here I would only remark that the centralist organisation, no matter how valuable it may be for secret societies and sectarian movements, contradicts the essence of trade unions. Even if it were possible – and I declare quite frankly that it is not – it would not be necessary, least of all in Germany. There, where the worker is subject to bureaucratic discipline from his infancy and believes in officialdom and higher authority, it is above all a question of teaching him to walk by himself  [1]*

Sectarianism was an ongoing and recurring problem in the International Workingmen’s Association which Marx had to address. See, for example, The Alleged Splits in the International, p.260 and p.298 ff.

Of course, an evaluation of the living tendencies and trajectories of development of a movement, class relations, relation to state, etc, – i.e  a grasp of the real, living, concrete dialectics of the whole situation – is always necessary in order to contribute to the development of the class movement. But because this movement is constantly changing according to the unfolding conditions of the development of capitalist society, so must our ‘evaluation’ and ‘contributions’ as such. In its slogans and proclamations, the sect always thinks it knows what is best for the proletariat and in this regard it resembles a quasi-religious approach to matters in both its psychology and in its actual practice. It is indeed the same approach and psychology of the messianic or millenarian cult. It is one thing being an organic and intrinsic participating part of the class movement and ‘contributing’ as such but it is quite something else being in distinct separation from it in a sect of one’s own and dictating to it and expecting the class movement to ‘subordinate itself to a particular sectarian movement’. Implicit in Marx’s letter to Schweitzer is this difference between, on the one hand, participating and being involved in the broad mass movement of the proletariat in a non-prescriptive, contributory mode of working and, on the other hand, preaching, intervening and fishing around in it in a prescriptive, sectarian way.

To work in a non-sectarian and non-prescriptive way means to participate in order to unconditionally further the interests and emanicipation of the proletariat as a class. It does not mean substituting the ‘programme’ or interests of the sect or grouplet for the historical interests of the proletariat or even identifying the two. It does not mean merely using the class movement as a fishing ground for recruitment and augmentation of the membership of the sect. The sect always identifies its own dogma or, as Marx writes, its own ‘particular shibboleth’ with the interests of the class movement as a whole. Marx writes that..

It is the business of the International Working Men’s Association to combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever [2]

The International Workingmen’s Association…

has not been hatched by a sect or a theory. It is the spontaneous growth of the proletarian movement, which itself is the offspring of the natural and irrepressible tendencies of modern society [3]

The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves [4]

Of course, this does not mean that there is no active debate and even struggle within the broad class movement as to inform direction of change, tactics, strategy, etc, as situations unfold and conditions change. Without this, there can be no development or advance. It cannot simply be a case of ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth’. If this were the case, then there would be no need whatsoever for Marxists to participate at all in the class movement. The whole of Marx’s life work would have been in vain. An ideological exercise. It is not participation per se but how and why we participate and constitute ourselves as an intrinsic organic part of it and not as a sect or cult in semi-detached relationship to it. Being ‘non-prescriptive’ is not equivalent to being ‘uninvolved’ as the sectarian insists. We participate in and study the class movement in order to grasp how we can contribute towards moving it on in the struggle against capital and its state power. We do not do this in order to sell news sheets and get ‘gullibles’ to fill out membership cards. Our role as Marxists is not to elevate ourselves to some position of being the ‘good faith’ or ‘moral conscience’ of the class movement or to be its ‘vanguard’ which is how every sectarian group refers to itself : “We are The Vanguard!”. It is to work in a non-prescriptive and non-sectarian way in the class movement for the emanicipation of the proletariat.

A doctor who prescribes a medicine to cure an illness or a bricklayer who delineates a method of building a wall to his apprentice so that it does not end up crooked is teaching the recipient of the prescription or method a way of curing their illness or building a straight wall respectively. Their decisions and teaching is based on a long experience and testing of received technical knowledge in their given area. The left-wing sect demands ‘of the class movement that it subordinate itself to the particular sectarian movement’ according to its ‘particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement’ and thereby ‘to prescribe the course of the movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe’. A more perfect characterisation of the operation of the contemporary left-wing grouplets, sects and assorted so-called ‘parties’ and ‘leagues’, etc, could not have been written today in 2014.

Shaun May


* All references, unless otherwise stated, are to be found in The First International and After. Political Writings, Vol 3.  (Penguin, 1974, Ed. David Fernbach), approx 400pp.

[1] Marx to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, in The First International and After, pp.155-156

[2] Marx. Instruction for Delegates to the Geneva Congress. p.90

[3] Marx. Report to the Brussels Congress. p.99

[4] Marx. Provisional Rules of the International Working Men’s Association.  p.82

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