In what way do I make the claim of “Rethinking Marxism”? I make the claim only in regards to trends within the socialist movement that have converted Marxism into a political religion. This conversion of Marxism into a political religion is artificial, itself a deviation from Marxist theory that paves the way forward for totalitarianism. My goal is to demonstrate exactly how such a conversion took place, and why it is contrary to Marxist principles and Marxist theory. In “Turning Marxism Back On It’s Head”, we mean to say that at a certain point on the mainstream of the radical left, Marxism was turned onto it’s head, marking it’s conversion into a political religion. Our goal is to reverse this, to turn it upside-down again in order to pave the way for genuine socialist democracy and the global emancipation of labor.
Marxism is Generally Correct
The Marxist analysis of the existing political, economic, and social order both now and historically, is generally correct. The problems historic Marxist movements have faced stem not only from the economic, political, and cultural backwardness and isolation of the nations in question, but from the abstracted nature of Marxism being taken too literally, too seriously, resulting in its conversion into a political religion. There is a great danger that comes with having so correct a world outlook, as certain “idealist” social myths are necessary for society to function. Moreover, the traditional application of Marxist theory onto a society is artificial, (i.e. not genuinely Marxist in application, but idealist in the worst sense of the word) and has thus often caused great social harm historically, even if these harms spring mainly from a totalitarian distortion of Marxist theory.
Is Marxism a Science? Is Communism a Historical Inevitability?
I look at Marxism like psychology. Is psychology a science? Yes. But it’s a science dealing with abstract analyses of concrete phenomena, it is not infallible, it should not be seen as a dogma or some political religion. Is there such thing as historical inevitability? To answer that you have to know whether or not free will exists and to what degree it expresses independence over concrete material conditions. I think to a certain extent there is historical inevitability, but I think at best we can say “this is likely where we are headed”. If true historical inevitability exists, not even dialectical materialism gives man the ability to truly understand what that inevitably actually is, at best we have hints or likely possibilities. To know true historical inevitability one must know all things. Is communism inevitable? No. But it is the likely outcome, in the long term, of a truly free and democratic society in the hands of the working class or majority- and it is something that should be fought for.
The Abstract Nature of the Marxist Method of Analysis
Marxism analyzes society, itself an abstraction (i.e. the sum of all hitherto existing interrelations between all individuals at large or by some category of differentiation). Its method of analysis is dialectical materialism. The conclusions it arrives at when capitalism is put under the microscope, show the likely historical necessity or “inevitability” of socialist revolution and the emancipation of labor. It’s method is scientific, but it is a scientific form of analysis in the sense that psychology is a science. Like psychology, it’s conclusions and formulas exist as an abstraction of that which is unabstracted, or real to the lives of working people. But its conclusions are very clear. What it advocates is democracy, there is no other way. At no point does Marxism advocate the pure application of some abstract theory (yes even that of Marxism itself) onto society. It sees the spontaneous action of the working class as something infinitely more valuable to the socialist movement than action based merely on some preconceived theory. Marxism demands that it’s own abstract analyses be unabstracted through the negative, spontaneous, direct, and democratic movement of the working class in it’s struggle for political power, and through that action alone, does it transform society. Not from the abstract to the concrete, but from the concrete to the abstract. Marxism is but a guide for the workers movement, it is not the engine of the workers movement itself.
Turning Marxism Back on Its Head; The Bolsheviks and The Paris Commune
As aforementioned, genuine socialist action tends to go not from abstract theory into concrete action, but from direct action into abstract theory. Not from the abstract to the concrete, but from the concrete to the abstract. In this we find true Praxis. “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory”, said Engels in this spirit. We shall go on further explaining this position. Rosa Luxemburg in her 1918 pamphlet ‘The Russian Revolution’, affirms this view:
“The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.
The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase. It has as its prerequisite a number of measures of force – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. (Proof: the year 1905 and the months from February to October 1917.) There it was political in character; the same thing applies to economic and social life also. The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.”
(The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg).
The “ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice” here, refers to a political force which applies Marxist ideas in an abstracted form, onto a society, rather than a working class movement transforming society in a way that, once analyzed through Marxist methods, seems to conform with the generally predicted “historical inevitability” of the capitalist system. Was it (October) still “real” in spite of its abstracted form? Certainly, it had yet to degenerate into Stalinism and it was based to a large extent, on mass movements and genuine struggle. But it was not purely the result of a working class movement aspiring towards the domination of its class either. These peculiar conditions arise undoubtedly from Russia’s backwardness, and the immaturity of Russia’s working class’s class consciousness and the immaturity of the socialist movement itself (the necessity of a vanguard party, etc.) And for this, no one is to blame.
To better understand my point, it helps to look towards the Paris Commune, a movement that affirmed the revolutionary spontaneity of the masses. Here there was a working class movement, a democracy, that was “Marxist” through and through. Even Marx himself called the commune a dictatorship of the proletariat, and for this he was not wrong. Marx’s criticisms would have been priceless to the commune. Here, Marxist politics best find their expression; as the revolutionary vanguard and critical appraiser of the movement for the emancipation of labor, not as its artificial engine. Marxist politics here, are not forced onto the will of the people. They are accepted or rejected at the people’s will, on primarily an individual and not institutional basis. They exist not as a political dogma or a political religion, but as a guide for labor’s emancipation in the historical and democratic process itself. Hence, “What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.”
Stalinism as a Distortion of Marxist Theory, An Expression of “Upside-Down” Marxism
Historically “Marxism-Leninism”, or Stalinism, embodies a paradoxical analysis of Marxist theory. Upon closer examination, Stalinism is wrought with irreconcilable contradictions, contradictions that show Stalinism to be disingenuous, a system that betrays its own premises. The working class itself, when unabstracted from abstract political theory, consists of countless individuals. Under Stalinism, this class of individuals is said to hold and democratically control all state power. Yet at the same time, and in actuality, the individual is crushed under the despotism of the bureaucratic state, and is not actually free to voice their own opinions, political or otherwise, even by bourgeois standards. What we are referring to here is not a “dictatorship of the proletariat” at all, contrary to both the bourgeois and Stalinist assertions.
Stalinism has its origins in the difficult conditions of revolutionary Russia. For these conditions and the inevitable response derived thereof, no blame really lies on the shoulders of Lenin and Trotsky. To them, the emergency measures taken during the Civil War period were just that, emergency measures. In essence, they understood that their war-time actions were opposed to the principles of Bolshevism. Their continuation into the post-civil war period represents, therefore, a deviation from Bolshevism. The elimination of the original heads of all the communist parties of the world and the heads of their representatives in the Comintern by Stalin, and the execution and persecution of most of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries that fought by Lenin’s side in 1917, are but a testament to this fact.
Let us look again at ‘The Russian Revolution’. In it she writes, or perhaps prophesies is a better word, the following:
“When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc. (Lenin’s speech on discipline and corruption.)”
In a Stalinist society you have blatant and brutal press censorship, and a constitution that at the same time stipulates “There is no press censorship” (Article 9, Section 2 of the 1949 G.D.R. constitution) A Stalinist society exists as nothing more than a brutal caricature of a socialist society. It uses Marxist methods in a purely abstracted form, and justifies its abuses purely based on these abstractions. Pointing out the absence of human rights in a Stalinist nation would be responded to by a Stalinist with, “Be materialist”, implying the intrinsic non-existence of human rights. But not even the most liberal human rights activist believes human rights actually exist. It is hard to believe anyone is so stupid. Within the abstraction itself, the Stalinist society finds for itself perfection. Officially, the whole of society is turned into a “paradise on earth” even though in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.
In a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat such as the Paris Commune, public discourse and democracy are the mainspring of civilization. In a Stalinist society, only the leader and the central committee have any real right to speak, and the bureaucracy ensures that dangerous leaders are removed from power when they get too carried away. Without agitation and freedom of dissent, the working class and popular masses within a society, even a so-called socialist one, can only find stagnation- the opposite of progress. The social conservatism of traditionally Stalinist states in comparison with the increasingly “liberalizing” west is evidence of this fact. The inevitable result, is that the society itself acts as a pressure cooker. It builds up enough steam until it explodes. The social contradictions and antagonisms brought about by this inherently “unfree” society, even by bourgeois standards, essentially means that Stalinism, like capitalism, produces it’s own gravediggers.
As Eugene V. Debs said,
“If it had not been for the discontent of a few fellows who had not been satisfied with their conditions, you would still be living in caves. Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”
Stalinism is to Marxism as Bonepartism is to Jacobinism- even if Marxism is light years superior, both ethically and politically, to Jacobinism.
Comparing The Experiences of The Commune, The Bolsheviks, and Stalinism; Where on Such a Spectrum Should 21st Century Socialism Lie?
The relationship between theory and action with workers states and self-proclainmed socialist movements can be placed onto a new kind of political spectrum if one so wishes. Stalinism exists on the opposite side of the spectrum to the Commune, for its actual historical expression was itself intrinsically opposed to the experience of the Commune.
If the Paris Commune is on the left (mainly action and genuine democracy), the Bolsheviks in the center (action based mainly on theory), and the Stalinists on the right (nearly all action based on theory to a paradoxical, hypocritical extent), 21th century socialism should aim for a position on this aforementioned spectrum of workers power, farther to the left than even the Paris Commune. In what way could it be further to the left? We shall demonstrate how in a moment.
Freedom, Democracy, Socialism
The Paris Commune had to utilize terror against the overthrown ruling class to secure its position. A modern socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country today would not need to resort to such measures. It would have no use for them.
“During the bourgeois revolutions, bloodshed, terror, and political murder were an indispensable weapon in the hand of the rising classes.
The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mold the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfill a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.”
(What Does the Spartacus League Want?, Rosa Luxemburg.)
If democracy is the method by which the working class controls society, and the majority truly holds all political power in a state of unlimited political freedom, then social and political life of such a society would be light years ahead of our modern bourgeois society in the age of Trumpism. It would be a democracy more broad and “open” than the Paris Commune or the most democratic of existing republics. It would be so free in essence, to the individual, that our modern capitalist society would appear to be fascistic in nature by comparison. In such a society, the Marxists would likely be elected to hold public office, would lead the revolution’s spirit and inflame the minds of the masses. But Marxism would not be decreed. This society would not aspire to embody “Marxism” or some preconceived notion as to what some thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries would have approved of. It would not implant a monolithic ideological worldview on the masses, it would not aspire to the “official” crystallized perfection of Stalinism. No, it would be considered “Marxist” or “socialist” through the spontaneous organization and democratic conquest of power by the working class, only after would they say “this is a Marxist society”. It would be Marxist once the concrete was abstracted, it would not be “Marxist” by the artificial application of abstract theory onto a society by means of terror, as was the case under Stalinism.
In it’s many errors, debates, and the general messiness of democracy, it would become a true dictatorship of the proletariat.
“Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”
(Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy, Rosa Luxemburg).
A small revolutionary party would not seize power and decree “Marxism”, getting the masses to unanimously applaud the resolutions of a leader by- unofficially- rule of terror. It would not be so utopian, no, it would be messy. A new event, a thousand new problems, a thousand wild debates. We firmly believe it is only in the mainsprings of unlimited political freedom and unfettered democracy that socialism truly exist. Let the philistines of conservatism who equate us with the Stalinist totalitarian chiefs of the 20th century, search for an audience in their own light. The current of historical progress will sweep away such views and illogical notions by weight of its own evidence, with neither censorship, terror, nor repression at its side.