From the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
I must begin with a mea culpa. For around four decades I was a ‘Marxist Leninist’, sometimes actively, often more passively. What I thus demonstrated to myself is an individual’s capacity for self-delusion.
The ideology associated with Lenin continues to be presented, by adherents and foes alike, as the realisation of Marxism, the actuality of communism when put into practice. The subsequent abject failure of the Soviet Union and its bloc confirming the inherent impracticality of socialism.
Not that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ has gone away. There remains ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, more accurately, burgeoning capitalism protected by an authoritarian one-party state. Cross the border into North Korea and the only ‘socialism’ to be found is akin to ‘National Socialism’.
Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela et al make various socialistic claims and can boast some successes with enlightened social policies. However, the working class in each still stands in the same relationship to capital as in avowedly capitalist countries, with the common tendency to authoritarianism.
Stated boldly, the working class may have acquired limited influence in the ruling bodies of capitalist states, but without assuming control, or anything approaching it, anywhere. Those states that developed state capitalism as the dominant mode as opposed to the ‘free’ market, often adopt, or are ascribed, ‘Communist’ or ‘Socialist’ as labels of convenience.
Socialism, in Marxist terms, is synonymous with communism, it is not an interim state of unspecified length, with communism promoted as the distant, very, very distant, Promised Land, while the state far from ‘withering away’ actually becomes much stronger and entrenched and then gradually moribund.
Nonetheless, mention socialism or communism to many (perhaps most) folk and it’s Leninism that is conjured up. Indeed, whatever fleeting contact people have with socialism it is usually in the form of a ‘Communist‘ Party, of which there are quite a few, or a ‘Socialist’ party/group styling themselves Trotskyist, of which there are more.
Despite their virulent antipathy to each other, they share a common feature. Each is the vanguard of an exclusive, and self-serving, interpretation of Marxism by which the working class will be led along the socialist road to communism. And yet, in the unlikely circumstances of actually being in a position to do so, all would actually establish state capitalism.
What defines socialism in Marxist terms is the relationship of the producers to the means of wealth creation: do they have full control over those means being held democratically in common? If producers are employed by the state, paid wages by the state, with the state controlling the means of wealth creation and surplus value, then they do not. That is still capitalism.
The attraction of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is the sense that unless it is led by those who understand the grander scheme, workers will at best develop what Lenin referred to as ‘trade union consciousness’, going no further than making bargains with capitalism.
Indeed, the working class has, so far, singularly failed to lift its eyes from the politics of the here and now, to the grander vision of what is actually possible. The temptation is to take people by the political scruff and drag them to their destination. Unfortunately, that destination is always the state claiming to act on their behalf.
However, unless the working class acts for itself by consciously pursuing its own interests, socialism cannot come about. To be blunt, if the working class cannot be inspired and educated to vote for socialism where it is able to do so, then it certainly cannot be compelled to be socialist.
Of course, socialism is not a simple matter of an overwhelming electoral or parliamentary majority. However, that would be an indication that the working class was pursuing a new society on its own behalf. There would be no need for a Lenin, living or embalmed.
Until Leninism has been decoupled from Marxism it will continue to serve as an ideological bulwark containing working class potential. It is the militant counterpoint to the reformism of social democracy. Both act, in their own ways, as distractions from confronting the actualities of capitalism and the need for the working class to actively engage with transcending it.
I was afflicted by elective political blindness, but once my vision cleared I saw there are no short cuts. It is also became clear that defending the indefensible – Leninism and its derivatives Stalinism and Trotskyism – is, in the tragic terms of the Soviet purges, a crime against the people.