Book Review from the September 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
Classical Marxism. By David Renton. New Clarion Press. 2002.
There is a tradition of ideas that can be termed Classical Leninism. According to this tradition, classical Marxism was betrayed by a number of key leaders until the collapse of the Second International in the First World War, leaving the way clear for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to carry the flag of socialist revolution. This is the “Great Man” theory of history, and even though this book includes two women in its collection of biographies, the leader fixation remains the same.
Marx played a prominent role in the formation of the International Working Men's Association (1864-1876), which became better known as the First International. This was an international federation of working class organisations based on the principle that the emancipation of the working class could only be achieved by the working class itself. Renton argues that the Second International (1889-1914) was set up as an explicitly Marxist organisation but went on to distort Marx's ideas to suit their own purposes. This was the era of “classical Marxism” and Karl Kautsky was its leading theoretician. Kautsky was the “Pope” of Marxism in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Second International. He is the main bogeyman in classical Leninism.
But there can be no doubt that Kautsky did distort Marx, in particular his support for reformism. Kautsky, Lenin and Renton are agreed that parliamentary action must be reformist. However, this is not Marx's conclusion, as he wrote in 1881 of workers' struggles being “pursued by all the means which the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of trickery which it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation” (Link) and other writings by Marx. There is no reason why parliamentary institutions could not be used by a class-conscious socialist majority to win power for the socialist revolution, and this is the position adopted by the Socialist Party at its formation in June 1904. Delegates were sent from the Socialist Party to the Amsterdam Congress of the Second International in August 1904, but, after seeing the reformism rampant within it, soon decided to have no more to do with it. When the leaders of the SPD voted for war credits in 1914 it came as a shock to Lenin and at first he refused to believe the news. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, had long warned of SPD support for militarism (see Link).
The fact is the Second International, the Third (Leninist) International (1919-1943) and the Fourth (Trotskyite) International (1938 onwards) have all distorted Marx for their own purposes. The main, but by no means only distortion by Lenin concerns the vanguard party. Lenin argued that workers were incapable of self-emancipation and instead must be freed from above by professional revolutionaries who have the workers' best interests at heart. (Renton points out that this is similar to Kautsky's position.) But Marx and Engels profoundly disagreed, as they made clear in a circular to the SPD in 1879:
“At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes” (Link).
So what is left of Marxism? Renton prefaces his book with a quote from an incredulous Trotsky: “None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course.” The Socialist Party has argued that the answer is to be found in the self-activity of the working class. For as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in Leninism or Marxism?: “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee” and “The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history”(Link).