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Opportunism is the practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances – with little regard for principles, or with what the consequences are for others.[1] Opportunist actions are expedient actions guided primarily by self-interested motives. Applied to communist leaders, or followers, opportunism is the practice of exploiting power for personal social or economic benefit. Legalism, exploiting opportunities for legal political or economic activity, presents the hazard of wholesale betrayal of revolutionary principles in exchange for a respected, and profitable, role in capitalist political and economic structures, a charge traditionally leveled by militants against social democrats.

Marxist theory of opportunism

Karl Marx provided no substantive theory of opportunism; insofar as he used the term, he meant a tactic of convenience or expediency used for self-serving motives, involving some or other kind of political, economic or intellectual trick. Nevertheless some Marxists claim that Marx’s theory of capitalism does imply a substantive theory of opportunism. Its main claim is that opportunism is not simply an aberration or impediment to the efficient functioning of capitalism, but an integral and necessary characteristic of it; capitalist market activity promotes opportunist moves in all sorts of ways. Five kinds of factors are usually cited:

  • Capitalist society constantly reorganizes the structure of human cooperation, so that, more and more, people produce things which they do not need themselves, or which are surplus to their own requirements, and which can therefore be appropriated by others for personal gain. This causes alienation, and it creates a specific motivational structure. It promotes an inability to respond adequately to the needs of others except in the form of self-interested trade-offs.[2]
  • Although people necessarily have to cooperate to survive, the way in which they go about this is highly contradictory, and involves “character masks”, because there is also constant competition among individuals, businesses and social classes for money, power and prestige. They all have different interests, and are likely to take advantage of others, when they sense they can get away with it. This competition is rarely a level playing field.[3]
  • Capitalist society is itself founded on the exploitation of the labour of others and on unequal exchange. This is enabled by the ownership or control of assets, money and credit which are used by investors to extract unearned income from the work of others who have to sell their work capacity to survive. It makes it possible for private owners of capital to claim more resources than they have themselves produced or contributed to society. Owning property is rewarded more and more, and working to create it is rewarded less and less.[4]
  • Regulating all the conflicting interests and values, the capitalist state enforces the constraints of a legal system, but this legal system splits moral value and economic value into separate compartments, as well as splitting public and private spheres.[5] While it formally regards all citizens as equal and free, in reality people are very unequally positioned with respect to their social status, power, knowledge and wealth, and consequently also their freedoms. Information asymmetry is not simply a problem in trade, but occurs in every sphere of life, and thus some capitalize on the ignorance of others.[6]
  • Capitalist society is of itself aimless and amorphous with regard to the purposes of human life, lacking any shared, consensual ethic. Any candidate for such an ethic, such as a religion, is only as influential as the power that exists to assert it, but even so its norms are constantly contradicted in practice. Capitalism makes human development conditional on the unbridled pursuit of self-enrichment. This promotes personal qualities such as egoism and selfishness, where people try to "privatize the gains and socialize the losses."[7]

Taken together, these five factors make it difficult for any individual or group to reconcile self-interest with the general interest, genuinely and durably, and it means that moral double standards are very pervasive.[8] In turn, that creates a total environment in which opportunism can flourish – including within the socialist movement.

In fact, “opportunism” as a political term began to be used widely among Marxists, when the parliamentarians from the leading party of the Second International, the German Social Democratic Party, voted in favour of the war credits necessary at the beginning of World War I. Marxist critics argued that this policy was a total abandonment of socialist principles, especially the principle of anti-militarism and the international solidarity of the working class.[9]

Since that time, opportunism has been often defined by Marxists as a policy which puts special interests ahead of the interests of the working class[10] However, this definition is not unproblematic, because it is always controversial what “the interests of the working class” really are, until the workers themselves say what they are. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of opportunism in this context is "the policy or practice of making concessions to bourgeois elements of society", as "a stage in the implementation of Socialism or Communism", where an opportunist is "a socialist or communist who advocates the making of concessions to the bourgeoisie". The implication is that opportunist policies split the labour movement, by tying part of the working class to bourgeois interests.


  1. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/opportunism
  2. See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959.
  3. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1981).
  4. See Karl Marx, "The general law of accumulation", in: Capital Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1976. "'The way you get rich in this world is not by working hard,' said Marty Sullivan [=Martin A. Sullivan], an economist and a contributing editor to Tax Analysts. 'It’s by owning large amounts of assets and having those things appreciate in value.'" – Steven Mufson and Jia Lynn Yang, "Capital gains tax rates benefiting wealthy feed growing gap between rich and poor", in: Washington Post, 12 September 2011.</
  5. See e.g. Heide Gerstenberger, Impersonal Power: History and theory of the bourgeois state. Haymarket Books, 2009.
  6. See: Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt, Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command and Change. Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005).
  7. See e.g. Psychology of the Private Individual: Critique of Bourgeois Consciousness. Gegenstandpunkt, 2009 [1]
  8. Ernest Mandel, "Marx, Engels en het probleem van de zogenaamde ‘dubbele moraal’", in: Veelzijdig marxisme, acta van het colloqium “De actualiteit van Karl Marx” – in opdracht van het Instituut voor Marxistische Studies, 1983
  9. See e.g. V.I. Lenin, "Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International", 1915. , V.I Lenin
  10. See e.g. Elif Çağlı, "A Dangerous Tendency: Opportunism"

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