Tuesday, December 02, 2008


On this day in 1961 the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro declared "I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be one until the end of my life." This phrase is a contradiction in terms and Socialists at the time said so. "Marxist terrorists" is another self-contradictory expression. Why? Well, Marx advocated a universal system
of common ownership and the production of goods and services solely
for use in a world system necessarily based on the widest possible
human consensus and established by conscious democratic political
action, not a Leninist vanguard. Still not convinced? Good - doubt everything, but give serious consideration to the following descriptions of Marxism and Lennism and decide for yourself whether these terms are, as Socialists contend, mutually exclusive.


The socialist theory formulated by Marx and Engels and further developed by socialists. Marx regarded himself as having given expression, in theory, to a movement that was already going on; it was the direct product of the recognition of the class struggle and the anarchy of production in capitalist society. Socialist theory arose in opposition to capitalism, but expressed itself in terms of already existing ideas. Marx’s close collaborator, Engels, identified three intellectual trends that they were able to draw upon:

Utopian socialism (Fourier, St. Simon, Owen)
German philosophy (Hegel, the Young Hegelians)
Classical political economy (Adam Smith, David Ricardo)

Socialist theory was a critical blending together of these three tendencies in the light of the actual class struggle.
The utopian socialists provided a constructive criticism of capitalism (its private property, competitiveness, etc.) and some interesting ideas about the possibilities of socialism (dissolving the distinction between town and country, individual self-development, etc.). But, lacking an adequate understanding of the class nature of society and social change, they were unable to see socialism as anything other than an ideal society, one that could have been established at any time. What was needed was a politics that acknowledged the class struggle.

An adequate theory of society and social change is what Marx was to contribute to socialist theory, providing it with a scientific basis. Hegelian philosophy tried to explain history, law, political institutions and so on, in terms of the development of ideas. Marx inverted this method and argued that the explanation lay not in the development of ideas, but in the development of social classes and their material conditions of life. Marx’s method for studying the general process of historical change is called the materialist conception of history.

By 1844 Marx had become a socialist and had reached the conclusion that the anatomy of ‘civil society’ (i.e. capitalism) was to be sought in political economy, in economics. Marx studied the classics of British political economy, Adam Smith and particularly David Ricardo. In Ricardo’s labour theory of value the value of a commodity was said to be determined by the amount of labour used in producing it. Profits, according to some of Ricardo’s followers, represented the unpaid labour of the workers; and so it was said that workers were not paid their full value and were cheated by their employers. Marx’s version of the labour theory of value explained exploitation, not by the capitalists cheating the workers, but as the natural result of the workings of the capitalist market. Marx pointed out that what the workers sold to the capitalists was not their labour, but their labour power; workers sell their skills, but have to surrender the entire product to the employer. Workers are exploited even though we are generally paid the full value of what we have to sell. Marx produced a theory of how the capitalist economy functioned which is still broadly acceptable today.

The Socialist Party has further developed Marx’s theories, and has made plain where it disagrees with Marx. We do not endorse Marx’s ideas regarding struggles for national liberation, minimum reform programmes, labour vouchers and the lower stage of communism. On some of these points the Socialist Party does not reject what Marx advocated in his own day, but rejects their applicability to socialists now. There are other issues upon which the Socialist Party might appear to be at variance with Marx, but is in fact only disputing distortions of Marx’s thinking. For example, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is usually understood in its Leninist interpretation. Indeed, it is a tragedy of world-historical proportions that Marx has been Leninized; what is basically a method of social analysis with a view to taking informed political action by the working class, has had its name put to a state ideology of repression of the working class. Instead of being known as a tool for working class self-emancipation, we have had the abomination of ‘Marxist states’.
Undeterred by these developments, the Socialist Party has made its own contributions to socialist theory whilst combating distortions of Marx’s ideas. In the light of all the above, the three main Marxist theories can be restated as:

The political theory of class struggle
The materialist theory of history
The labour theory of value

Marxism is not only a method for criticising capitalism; it also points to the alternative. Marxism explains the importance to the working class of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use and the means for establishing it. And while it is desirable that socialist activists should acquaint themselves with the basics of Marxism, it is absolutely essential that a majority of workers have a working knowledge of how capitalism operates and what the change to socialism will mean.


According to Stalin, Leninism is ‘Marxism in the era of imperialism and of the proletarian revolution … Leninism is the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular’ (Foundations of Leninism, 1924). Accordingly, this ideology is often referred to as ‘Marxism-Leninism’. This, however, is a contradiction in terms: Marxism is essentially anti-Leninist. But not everything Lenin wrote is worthless; for example, his article entitled The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism (1913), contains a concise exposition of Marxism. Why, then, is Leninism objectionable? Because, for socialists, it is anti-democratic and it advocates a course of political action which can never lead to socialism.

In What Is To Be Done? (1902) Lenin said: ‘the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness’. Lenin argued that socialist consciousness had to be brought to the working class by professional revolutionaries, drawn from the petty bourgeoisie, and organised as a vanguard party. But in 1879 Marx and Engels issued a circular in which they declared:

‘When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. We cannot, therefore, co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois.’

Nor is this an academic point, since the history of Leninism in power shows that allowing elites to rule ‘on behalf of’ the working class is always a disaster. Working class self-emancipation necessarily precludes the role of political leadership.

In State and Revolution (1917) Lenin said that his ‘prime task is to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state’. Lenin argued that socialism is a transitional society between capitalism and full communism, in which ‘there still remains the need for a state… For the state to wither away completely, complete communism is necessary’. Moreover, Lenin claimed that according to Marx work and wages would be guided by the ‘socialist principle’ (though in fact it comes from St Paul): ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’ (Sometimes this is reformulated as: ‘to each according to his work’.) Marx and Engels used no such ‘principle’; they made no such distinction between socialism and communism. Lenin in fact did not re-establish Marx’s position but substantially distorted it to suit the situation in which the Bolsheviks found themselves. When Stalin announced the doctrine of ‘Socialism in One Country’ (i.e. State Capitalism in Russia) he was drawing on an idea implicit in Lenin’s writings.

In State and Revolution, Lenin gave special emphasis to the concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. This phrase was sometimes used by Marx and Engels and meant working class conquest of power, which (unlike Lenin) they did not confuse with a socialist society. Engels had cited the Paris Commune of 1871 as an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, though Marx in his writings on this subject did not mention this as an example, since for him it meant conquest of state power, which the Commune was not. Nevertheless, the Commune impressed itself upon Marx and Engels for its ultra-democratic features - non-hierarchical, the use of revocable delegates, etc. Lenin, on the other hand, tended to identify democracy with a state ruled by a vanguard party. When the Bolsheviks actually gained power they centralised political power more and more in the hands of the Communist Party.

For Lenin the dictatorship of the proletariat was ‘the very essence of Marx’s teaching’ (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918). Notice, however, that Lenin’s Three Sources article - referred to above - contains no mention of the phrase or Lenin’s particular conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And for modern Leninists this concept, in Lenin’s interpretation, is central to their politics. So, for its anti-democratic elitism and its advocacy of an irrelevant transitional society misnamed ‘socialism’, in theory and in practice, Leninism deserves the hostility of workers everywhere.

Castro also stated in 1961 that "Marxism or scientific socialism has become the revolutionary movement of the working class." In this it could be said that he was not wrong just premature.


Jock said...

interesting piece. Regardng Marx and the struggles of small countries eg Ireland etc, I see the SPGB is opposed to national liberation-type struggles, a departure from some of Marx's comments. On identity, would you say it is possible to have a understanding of our class position (as wage slaves), a class identity, but also if you are from, say, Ireland/Wales/Scotland or other geographical location, a strong Irish or Scottish identity co-existing with a conscious class identity?

Mondialiste said...

No, being a socialist and a nationalist, ie have a "strong" national identity, are incompatible. But that doesn't mean that a socialist cannot like and enjoy the culture of the part of the world where he grew up, eg socialists from England liking to follow cricket. But then the thing about culture is that you can enjoy that of other parts of the world too, eg there's nothing to prevent someone from England liking Indian cooking or, for that matter, listening to the bagpipe. Culture and "nationalism" are to be distinguished. Culture OK, Nationalism Not OK.

Simon said...

Regarding having more than one identity - you can abstract from your life any way you want - the fact that you have red hair, are a Citroen or Mini driver, from a particular country, smoke, are gay/straight, whatever. But the social driving force that these things are by and large ephemeral to is economic relations - your relation to the means of life, not just survival but all socially produced goods, from bread to XBoxes. All of these other factors are about how we relate to each other within a social world which is the outgrowth of economic activity. For example, nationalism is a particular historical basis for a privileged group's access to the means of production; take it away and you still have privileged access, just now based on birth, job performed, or sheer lottery.

Marx was speaking at a time when working class movements were little developed and had to ride the coattails of the capitalists - bear in mind that the Labour Party did not leave the Liberals till 1906, for example. These capitalist movements were usually nationalist, establishing modern discrete polities from feudal ex-empires whether Ottoman, Austrian or Holy Roman. Garibaldi's crusade in Italy was a classic case in point. Historically socially progressive - if there's nothing else on the cards. But now nationalism is a regressive movement - an attempt to put the achievements of the working class back in the box and mobilise the workers as a political adjunct to capitalists of a particular area.


Jock said...

I am not so sure as you seem to be about this. I think you have possibly missed my point, i.e I was merely speculating about an individual worker (myself, for example) understanding my economic position as a wage slave, but also having a co-existing strong geographic identity (in my case Scotland). I understand the case for socialism - abolishing the wages system - and also have a Scottish identity, Scotland being a smaller entity than England and physically more remote from political power in London. The Socialist Standard is a very good publication, and I am indebted to it for improving my understanding of how this world works. However, the organization behind it in my opinion does have a slightly off-putting title , the Socialist Party of "Great" Britain - it is a name which seems like an imperial hangover from the days of the British Empire!
And going back to the orginal piece on the blog which suggests socialist theory has been and can be developed (with not everything Marx wrote being endorsed), could the administration of socialism (presuming capitalism does not destroy our planet first) not be based on socialist delegates to relatively-defined geographic areas such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England etc?

Dave B said...

Derivation of 'Great'

After the Old English period, Britain was used as a historical term only. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his pseudohistorical Historia Regum Britanniae (circa 1136) refers to the island of Great Britain as Britannia major ("Greater Britain"), to distinguish it from Britannia minor ("Lesser Britain"), the continental region which approximates to modern Brittany.
The term Britain re-surfaces in Early Modern period, in the context of efforts toward unification of England and Scotland. In 1604, James I proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain".
Sources such as the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) define Great Britain as "England, Wales, and Scotland considered as a unit" and Britain as "an island that consists of England, Wales, and Scotland."
In Irish, Wales is referred to as An Bhreatain Bheag which means, literally, Little Britain. On the other hand, the closely related language, Scottish Gaelic, uses the term, A'Bhreatainn Bheag, to refer to Brittany.


Jock said...

interesting research! The description "Great Britain" just seems to me a bit dated nowadays. To me, it just paints a picture of the Victorian age and the British Empire. Hence my comments about the SPGB's full name, which I know originates from the early years of the 20th Century