Today is the 20th anniversary of the failed coup by Leninist-Stalinist hardliners in what was the USSR.
Karl Marx was not simply volunteering his name to a way of life that would exist in post-capitalist society. The main purpose of his years of intensive investigation of capitalism was to expose that system as the final form of class exploitation of property while demonstrating that it had created the economic potential for the establishment of universal freedom.
Both Marx and his co-worker, Frederick Engels, referred to that universal freedom as socialism or communism which terms they used interchangeably. Marx did not attempt to draw a detailed picture of socialism; at the time of his writing capitalism was still a rapidly developing system and the level of development it had achieved when the working class abolished it would have an obvious bearing on the structure of the new society. What he did show, with repetitive clarity, was the part played by commodity production, wage labour and money in capitalism’s exploitive process and, thus, their necessary extirpation from life in socialism.
But capitalism, though a burgeoning economic system in the middle of the 19th century, had not economically matured to the point where Marx’s vision of a classless society in which free access to needs would be the mode of distribution could be realised. Against the possibility that working class political demand might exceed the economic capacity of the system to deliver Marx and Engels mooted the possibility of a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”: patently working class hegemony over the processes of production that would allow for the speedy development of production to the point where free access to need was possible.
It was a reasonable thesis in the circumstances of the time but, given its political distortion by Lenin and the various conflicting elements that, following the Bolshevik coup d’etat in Russia in 1917, attached themselves to Lenin’s political ideas, it was to prove seriously damaging to the Marxian concept of socialism
Ironically when Lenin used the question of a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” in 1917 the historical circumstances that had led to Marx speculating about dictatorship no longer existed. Capitalism’s rapid development had made the question irrelevant in conditions where a majority of the working class were capable of undertaking the conscious, democratic political action to bring about a revolutionary change in the base of society.
But both the economic and political basis for a revolutionary change were absent in Russia in 1917. The Russian proletariat was a small fraction of the mainly peasant population. The Bolshevik slogan was ’Peace, Land and Bread’, hardly the sophisticated slogans of socialist revolutionaries! Lenin might well have thought of Engels’s admonition that a leader gaining power in circumstances that do not permit the implementation of his principles necessarily comes into conflict with those principles. Socialism was not on the political agenda in Russia nor did the Bolshevik coup provoke the hoped-for social revolutions elsewhere in western Europe.
Josef Stalin, who subsequently, by an ironic inversion of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history, became the Lucifer of the Left and the architect of evil in the Russian empire, wrote a pamphlet called Socialism or Anarchism in 1905 in which he summed up the Marxian view of socialism:
“Future society will be socialist society. This means, primarily, that there will be no classes in that society… this also means that with the ending of exploitation, commodity production and buying and selling will also be abolished…”
Obviously material conditions in Russia in 1917 could not accommodate the establishment of socialism so Lenin moved the goalposts, changing the Marxian objective to suit the realities existing in the country. Capital development through state monopoly was the only option open to him and the Communist Party, but in a monumental act of political dishonesty that would bear heavily on the world-wide working class into the future, he proclaimed that socialism was state-capitalism and a mere stage on the way to communism
So the State became the national capitalist and the Communist Party the ruthless state boss enforcing a dictatorship over the workers in a frenetic effort of capital accumulation. Not only was Russia in the rigid control of a dictatorship but Lenin and the Communist Party were clearly not opposed to the emergence of a single dictator; thus, Lenin in a speech on the 31 March 1920 to the Ninth Congress of the Bolshevik Party :
“We are thus reiterating what was approved two years ago in an official resolution of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee! … namely, that Soviet socialist democracy and individual management and dictatorship are in no way contradictory, and that the will of a class may sometimes be carried out by a dictator, who sometimes does more alone and is frequently more necessary.”
Many contemporary exponents of Leninism ascribe the awful saga of totalitarian rule that emerged from this sort of thinking to Stalin, Yes, Stalin did head the list of political gangsters that terrorised Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. But it was the elitist nonsense promoted by Lenin, as evidenced above and the undemocratic political structures established by the Communist Party that created the pathway to the massive evils of Stalinism.
Unfortunately today a common rejection of socialism is based not only on the Russian experience but, also, on the tyranny that Leninist thinking and political strategy has enforced elsewhere as ‘socialism’