Monday, January 22, 2024

Lenin's Distortion of Marxism (1983)

From the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

The greatest single movement to confuse and distort the ideas of Marxism has been Leninism. The false assertion that Russia. China, Kampuchea, Albania et al are examples of Marxism in practice is not only a distortion of the works of Marx, but is a means of discrediting the socialist objective. To support the revolutionary socialist aim of Marxism is to oppose fundamentally the Bolshevik outlook of Lenin; the absurd ideological construction of Marxist-Leninism is as meaningful as Christian-Atheism or Conservative-Radicalism.

Apart from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, virtually all of the parties, groups and factions which claim to be Marxists would also claim to be Leninists. In fact, they are Leninists and as such they are not only opponents of Marxism, but enemies of the socialist objective. Of course, most of the members have not read the forty-two volumes of Lenin's collected works — they have probably not even come across the statements from Lenin which are quoted in this article. It is not against workers who have misguidedly joined the ranks of the Leninist Left that this article is directed, but against Leninism as an anti-socialist dogma which must be rejected before working class political consciousness can be achieved.

To understand the basic opposition between Marxism and Leninism it is necessary to make clear what it means to be a Marxist. Starting from the recognition that there is nothing inevitable about the chaotic mess which the world is in. Marxists reject the myth that the horrifying social problems of capitalism, such as mass poverty and war and starvation, must always exist: the narrow conservatism which claims that there is no alternative to the perverse “civilisation” of the bomb and the dole queue is dismissed on the grounds that all things change; social arrangements, however ‘natural' they may seem to be, do not remain static. The Marxist outlook presupposes that the social problems which upset the lives of the mass of humanity today are not caused by inefficient governments or weaknesses of ‘human nature’; their cause is the social system of capitalism, where wealth is produced for sale on the market with a view to profit rather than for human needs. The Marxist analysis of capitalism points to the existence of two great classes: the capitalists, who possess but do not produce, and the workers, who produce but do not possess. Capitalism and its attendant problems can only be destroyed by conscious working class action. Marxism is a theory of class struggle: the abolition of the profit system was not posed by Marx as an appealing moral ideal, but as the only class interest of the majority class in the society — the workers. It is fundamental to Marxism that only the workers can solve our own problems:
The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class themselves. (Marx, preamble to the Rules of the First International. )
Marx had no doubt that workers could enact our own class emancipation. Allied to the struggle to end capitalism. Marxism is concerned with the struggle to establish the next stage of human history: socialism or communism. For Marx the two terms meant exactly the same thing. What do Marxists mean by socialism or communism? A system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of producing and distributing wealth — factories, offices, mines, docks, farms. Common ownership does not mean state ownership: the state is the executive committee of the capitalist class and when wealth is commonly owned there can be no classes and therefore no state. For convenience, we may summarise the principles of Marxism as follows:
  1. That change is constant and present conditions (capitalism) are not inevitable.
  2. That capitalism is the cause of social problems today.
  3. That workers can and must emancipate ourselves by taking conscious political action to end the profit system.
  4. That socialism/communism is an objective worth working for because it will mean the rational utilisation of the earth's resources for the use of the earth's inhabitants.
Marxists may be wrong in holding these principles: if so, the opponents of Marxism are keeping conspicuously quiet about it. Instead of applying their ‘‘talents" to producing a convincing critique of Marxism, the avowed opponents of Marxism spend their energies and money on the far easier task of attacking the theory of Leninism. In so doing they win millions of workers to the cause of anti-Marxism. Professional anti-Marxists refer to “Marxist Russia”. Why shouldn't they — after all, according to the Communist Party of Great Britain,
Today socialism is a reality for all to see. Countries with a population of hundreds of millions are socialist states. (The British Road to Socialism)
The media refers to a “Marxist government" in Poland which locks up trade unionists — and a “Marxist President" in Zimbabwe who has declared strikes illegal — and “Marxist" tendencies in the Labour Party which operate in secret and devote their political energies to revolutionary exercises like threatening to take the NEC to Court. The media did not invent these pseudo-Marxists. Neither did they invent Stalin or Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968 or Gdansk more recently. How are workers expected to respond to such examples of Leninism, presented in the name of Marxism? Understandably, for very many workers Marxism is a dirty word: talk to them about what Marxism and socialism really mean and, quite understandably, they will tell you that Marxism sounds alright in theory, but. . .

As soon as we begin to compare the ideas of Lenin the Bolshevik with those of Marx the socialist it becomes clear that Leninism has been tried and failed, while Marxism is still a method of social analysis and change which is of immense value to the working class.

It cannot be over-emphasised that for Marx socialist revolution meant working class self-emancipation. Socialism could not be established for the workers by a party or an advanced minority. Previous, capitalist revolutions could not be looked to as models for socialist revolution; as Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.
Note the emphases: self-conscious — carried out by men and women who are not mere followers, but who know what they want and know how to get it; independent — a movement for workers of workers; immense majority — it must involve most workers. Lenin fundamentally rejected the idea of working class self-emancipation:
Socialist consciousness cannot exist among the workers. This can tie introduced only from without. (What Is To Be Done?)
According to Lenin, the “immense majority" simply “cannot” become “self-conscious”; they would have to wait for such consciousness to be brought to them "from without”, from the Bolshevik vanguard or the CP or the SWP or the IMG or the WRP or some other band of arrogant leaders who think that they have acquired knowledge about society which the rest of the working class “cannot” understand. Rejecting Marx’s idea of an independent movement of a majority of class conscious workers, Lenin advocated “revolutionary leadership":
If Socialism can only he developed when the intellectual development of all the people permits it. then we shall not see socialism for at least five hundred years. The Socialist political party, which is the vanguard of the working class, must not allow itself to be halted by the lack of education of the mass average, but must lead the masses . . . (Lenin at the Congress of Peasants’ Soviets, 1918)
We do not need to guess about what Marx’s response would have been to such arrogant political talk; in Marx's day there were just the same kind of would-be leaders hanging around the German Socialist Workers’ Party this is what he said of them:
We cannot . . . co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above . . . (Marx/Engels, Circular letter to German socialists, 1875.)
“People’s Tsarism”
The seizure of power by the Bolshevik minority in October 1917 turned Leninism from an ideology into a political regime. The failure of the Bolsheviks to establish socialism “from above" was inevitable because the material conditions did not exist in Russia to allow anything but capitalism to develop. The Leninists called their dictatorship of the party a dictatorship of the proletariat. The modern Leninists have followed them in this mythology; for example, a pamphlet entitled The Struggle for Socialism (sold by the Socialist Workers’ Party) misinforms its readers that
For the first time in history the majority of the population democratically ruled and working people themselves determined their own future and destiny.
If this statement were true, then it would be rather perverse that “working people", having acquired the power to determine “their own future and destiny” should have decided (democratically, no doubt) that what they would like more than anything else would be to live under a one-party dictatorship. The Bolshevik Zinoviev who, unlike the fantasists of the SWP was actually in Russia at the time, was rather more candid about the nature of "Bolshevik democracy":
We have 500,000 Party members who manage the entire state machine from top to bottom.
Half a million out of one hundred and thirty million ran Russia from top to bottom and the SWP claim that “the majority of the population democratically ruled". Lenin also was quite open about the minority revolution of the Bolsheviks:
Just as 150,000 lordly landowners under Tsarism dominated the 130 million Russian peasants, so 20,000 members of the Bolshevik party are imposing their proletarian will on the mass, but this time in the interests of the latter. (Lenin, The New International, April, 1918.)
But Tsarism did not pretend to be socialism; the massive distortion of Leninism was that it continued the undemocratic forms of Tsarism, claiming that this was socialism. So far did the distortion go that Lenin was even able to write that
There is . . . absolutely no contradiction . . . between Soviet (that is, socialist) democracy and the exercise of dictatorial powers by individuals.
The Communist parties of the world, which were set up in response to the Bolshevik success, exist to defend the Leninist distortion of Marxism and socialism. Just as the Tories in Britain defend the mighty power of capital as being a "property-owning democracy", so the Russian nationalists of the CP regard the tyranny of the CPSU as being “socialism for all to see". In fact, all that they are defending is the class power of the "Communist" bureaucratic elite.

The Leninists of today are not content to defend the awful monument to Bolshevism which exists in Russia and China; they still maintain that the old Bolshevik methods of minority action present the only serious strategy for establishing socialism. According to the SWP.
the form of government adopted by the Russian workers over half a century ago has . . . been successfully applied by every revolutionary workers' movement since 1917. (The Struggle for Socialism)
The present writer wrote over three years ago to ask the SWP for information about where these successful revolutions have taken place; the “vanguard” has yet to reply.

The Leninist distortion of Marxism is not only a matter of strategy; it is often said that "you socialists are all after the same basic thing, but you go different ways about getting it”. In one sense this is true, insofar as most workers on the Left do want a society where the problems of capitalism no longer exist. But then, so do most vicars and most boy scouts and most of the workers who oppose Marxism. Unity of sentiment is one thing; unity of political consciousness is another. In fact, most Leninists would pay lip service to the Objects of the SPGB, but spend their time advocating the absurd Leninist conception of socialism. According to Lenin, socialism means capitalism run in the interest of the exploited class:
We are for . . . regulation of production and distribution in the interests of the poor, the toilers and the exploited against the exploiters.
If, under Leninist rule, the exploited are going to regulate affairs in their own class interest, “against the exploiters", then one is left wondering why those who are regulating things continue allowing the exploiters to go on exploiting their masters. If the poor are to be powerful, why are they still the poor? There are a number of workers in Russia asking just such questions. According to Lenin’s Orwellian logic, socialism is “nothing else but a monopoly of state capitalism instituted for the benefit of all the people”. (Lenin, Collected Works. Vol. 26, p-.26I.) In short, Leninists advocate state possession of the productive and distributive machinery, as opposed to common ownership and democratic control.

Leninists become very upset when their pseudo-socialist nations are exposed as being state capitalist. The Leninists should read Lenin and they would discover that capitalism was his objective:
. . . state capitalism would be a step forward . . . If in approximately six months' time state capitalism became established in our Republic, this would be a great success and a sure guarantee that within a year socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold . . . (The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It)
Leninists today advocate schemes for nationalisation in the name of Marxism. State capitalism and private capitalism are two sides of the same capitalist coin.

That Lenin distorted Marxism is beyond question. It is not with academic enthusiasm that Marxists expose this distortion; to us, political knowledge is power and confusion can serve to set the struggle back by years. Marxists are hostile to the reactionary political theory of Leninism for, by employing the rhetoric of socialism it serves as a fraudulent defence for the state capitalist tyrannies which oppress millions of workers in our age. If in the year which marks the hundredth anniversary of Marx’s death we can succeed in clearing the confusion of Leninism from the working class movement we will have achieved a major step forward in the struggle for majority socialist understanding.
Steve Coleman

Blogger's Note:
Mark Shipway, from the Council Communist group Wildcat, replied to this article in the April 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard.

Correction (1983)

From the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

With reference to "added value" (in the article "Promised Land" last month) it should be pointed out that this is the total new wealth created by the workers in the productive process. This is then divided into the wages and salaries paid to workers, and the surplus value received and accumulated by the capitalist class.

SPGB Meetings (1983)

Party News from the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

A recording of Eddie Grant's meeting 'Are world unity and cultural diversity compatible?' - from the SPGB's Socialism as a Practical Alternative Weekend School - is available at the following link.

A False Dawn

On this day in history a hundred years ago the Labour Party formed its first (minority) government.

Posted below are a selection of articles from the Socialist Standard from that period covering both the 1923 General Election and the duration (and aftermath) of that first Labour administration: 
  • Jan 1924: After The Poll.
  • Feb 1924: Editorial - A "Socialist" Government.
  • Mar 1924: Editorial - Peace At Any Price!
  • Apr 1924: Fake Labour Government. The puppet show.
  • Jun 1924: The Fraud of Reform.
  • Jul 1924: The Capitalist Housing Bill.
  • Jul 1924: The Labour Party Votes for Strike-Smashing Bill.
  • Aug 1924: Editorial - Labour Rules The Empire With Bombs and Bullets. 
  • Sep 1924: Editorial - Reparations or Revolution.
  • Nov 1924: Editorial - The Great Sham Fight at the Polls
  • Dec 1924: How Labour Ruled Mespot.
  • Apr 1925: A review of "The Diplomacy of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald".
  • Aug 1929: Mr. Wheatley's Lapse.