Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

Marxism: Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism

(Autumn 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 26, Autumn 1966, pp.  9–16 & 27–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Any examination of the theoretical contribution to Marxism of three individuals spanning such an immense period of time and facing such a diversity of different problems is obviously impossible in the space of one article. However, some impressionistic themes can be picked out and, schematically, compared, but those themes are necessarily incomplete in being detached from the historical context where they were presented. The historical background is of particular importance here since Bolshevism is a response to a certain range of problems, and a characteristic means of vilifying Bolshevism is to present its theories without mentioning the problems those theories were designed to overcome.

Bolshevism exists essentially in practice. Lenin’s writings were always rooted in some immediate context. He never wrote general theory except in relationship to some immediate political purpose, and it is impossible to understand what he wrote without understanding the charges to which he is replying. However, for Lenin, theory was a prelude and a guide to practice, a means to help practice and something that itself evolved relative to practice. Necessarily, if theories concealed essential problems, they were bad theories. However, successors to Lenin did not regard theory in the same light – for them, Lenin’s words were frozen into ritual, applicable at all times and places; necessarily, theory came after practice as a means of justifying that practice, making it consistent with some tradition of thought no longer used to guide practice. The shift is not because Lenin’s successors were muddled or mistaken or intellectually poor. In the change lies the transformation of Marxism from a means of so analysing society that certain action necessarily follows into the conservative ideology of a new class society, a body of formalised doctrine designed to justify or obscure the existing nature of that society and leave complete freedom of action to its leaders. Comparisons can be made between modern Soviet ideology and various forms of theology, but this is a relatively crude exercise; more interesting are the comparisons that can be made between Soviet thought and Western conservative thought, where the same sort of picture of society emerges. However, the common terminology of Bolshevism and Stalinism should not conceal the almost diametrically opposed range of problems facing each, and the diametrically opposed purposes embodied in each.

The continuing element in this examination of some of the works of Lenin, Stalin and Mao will be the changing relationship of theory to practice, a relationship summarised by Marx for socialist revolutionaries in the term ‘sensuous practice’. This relationship is not, of course, a theoretical problem in isolation – there can be no theoretical balance between theory and practice without real practice, without concrete identification and activity towards the realisation of one’s theoretical ends.

1. The Background

Marxism was initially defined and shaped on a mass political level by the German Social Democrat Party, and this definition provided in the 1890s a framework for the union of German socialists and the Victorian philosophic doctrine loosely described as positivism. This union produced a peculiarly stark form of economic determinism which not only virtually excluded the opportunity for revolutionary action (since the revolution was ‘inevitable’, nothing need be done about it), but also made theory redundant. Marxism became a means of analysing society alone, offering no guide to action –it was ‘science.’ In day-to-day practice, German Social Democracy was at one with the non-Marxist Fabians, demonstrating how little general theory was of importance to either. Both took general theory for granted, and necessarily that general theory came to be indistinguishable from the philosophic status quo, positivism. But even as Marxism in the hands of Engels and Kautsky reached Victorian positivism (thus excising from Marxism the dialectic), general European culture itself was reaching a state of almost explosive rejection of positivism; the era of the peaceful expansion of capitalism was giving way to open imperialist clashes leading to war. This change generated entirely new forms of activism on the Left, producing within the labour movement almost a division of labour between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice, between ‘science’ and activism. There were a number of varied responses to the schism. One philosophic response argued that Marxism was a simple economic doctrine (as it was in Kautsky’s hands) which presented a scientific view of the world but did not suggest why the individual should want what was inevitable; the re-appearance of the Liberal ‘individual,’ contrasted to the Marxist class, is one example of Social Democratic Marxism’s absorption of non-Marxist assumptions. The argument then suggested Marxism’s economic analysis needed underpinning with a system of individual ethics, usually drawn from the work of Kant. The movement became know as revisionism in the hands of Bernstein [1], but neo-Kantianism had much wider repercussions throughout Social Democracy, particularly in the work of the Austro-Marxists. On a non-theoretical level, anarcho-syndicalism can be seen as also a response to the central problem, an attempt to restore revolutionary practice but here in explicit isolation from revolutionary theory. Again, to some extent, Mussolini’s evolution from orthodox Social Democratic Marxism through the phase of being an activist ginger group to stimulate action in Italian Social Democracy, to fascism, could be seen as similar in starting point. [2] However, the major attempt within Marxism to reunify theory and practice was undertaken by Rosa Luxembourg and Parvus, and in Russia, by the Bolsheviks. There is no space here to examine the pre-Marxist revolutionary movement in Russia, the Narodniki, although such an examination is important in locating exactly what was possible for a revolutionary group in the conditions of Tsarism. Many who attack Lenin for not behaving as if he lived in Victorian England or even the Kaiser’s Germany merely demonstrate their ignorance of the terrible repressive conditions of Tsarist autocracy.

Marxist ideas began to circulate in Russia, mainly in academic circles, from the 1870s. The first Social Democrat organisation in St Petersburg dates from 1885, and first (abortive) congress of the Russian Workers’ Social Democrat Party from 1898. Georgi Plekhanov led the attack on the existing Narodnik orthodoxy among revolutionaries, posing against it not only the progressive role of the proletariat (rather than the peasantry) and the necessity for Russia to undergo capitalism before it could reach socialism, but also demonstrating that capitalism was already underway. P Struve, one of the earliest Marxists in Russia itself (Plekhanov was in exile), wrote the first Manifesto for the RWSDP, and it is of interest that he there repeats an opinion common in European Social Democracy and one of crucial significance for subsequent RWSDP history:

‘The farther east one goes in Europe, the weaker, meaner and more cowardly in the political sense becomes the bourgeoisie, and the greater the cultural and political tasks which fall to the lot of the proletariat. On its strong shoulders, the Russian working class must and will carry the work of conquering political liberty.’ [3]

Out of this initial activity emerged roughly three groups, the first two providing the main polemical targets for the third, the Bolsheviks. These first two can be schematised as:

  1. A group of intellectuals (Struve, Berdyaev, Tugan-Baran-ovsky) which, in conjunction with the revisionists in Germany, saw Marxism as profoundly weak as a general philosophy since it was merely economic analysis without any ethical code which would justify its ‘inevitability’ for the individual. The group avoided activity which crossed the censor or the Tsarist police and thus earned the nickname Legal Marxists. Some of them subsequently pursued the ethical strand of thought into religious mysticism.
  2. A group, nicknamed Economists, that argued that the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia would and could overthrow Tsarism once capitalism was more developed. Accordingly, workers should struggle to improve their economic position without intervening in politics or organising a specifically proletarian party. The Economists placed heavy stress on the spontaneous activity of workers as superior to a consciously disciplined worker organisation. Many of the group were subsequently Mensheviks, but remained influential among the Bolsheviks.

2. Lenin

‘The whole of Lenin is contained entirely in revolutionary action. His scientific works are only a preparation for action.’ [4]

Lenin was one of the greatest revolutionaries of all times, a man of great simplicity, severity and dedication, but possessing in abundance that peculiar synthesis of the sense of freedom and of necessity which characterises the work of Marx: the economically inevitable and the ethically desirable are once more one and the same in the ‘sensuous practice’ of a revolutionary class. Lenin’s theoretical work is not, by the standards of Marx, great, but it was the essential guide to his practice. Like most of his contemporaries, Lenin was burdened with the inheritance of Kautskyan Marxism so that, despite his attempts to overcome that burden, his philosophic work as a whole is schizoid between a crude Kautskyan materialism and his refurbished and explosive Hegelian dialectic. He utilised the analytic achievements of European Social Democracy (for example, Hilferding’s Finanzkapital for his theory of imperialism), but with the crucial difference that ‘science’ for Lenin was not passive contemplation by one individual of a real world, but study of a world made and sustained by men as a prelude to action by men to change their world. His view of capitalism accordingly stresses its continuing contradictory nature – not just cartelisation stabilising markets, but cartelisation intensifying competition between the cartels; not just world unification through imperialism, but increasingly aggressive conflicts between rival imperialisms. And he extrapolated from this view immediate lessons for Bolshevik practice in Tsarist Russia, relating this practice back to the general European and world scenes.

From the early 1890s, Lenin was active in politics. With many other Russian Marxists, he saw as the main barrier to the overthrow of Tsarism, without which parliamentary democracy and the consequent growth of the labour movement were impossible, the weakness of the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia. Since the State and foreign interests had developed capitalism in Russia, a proletariat had been created proportionately larger than the native bourgeoisie. Thus, the small bourgeoisie would be too frightened of a threat from the proletariat to risk overthrowing the Tsar to create a bourgeois republic. However, the proletariat was still very new and primitive, at that anarchic stage where it could not analyse its own position in society as the basis for realistic action, but wasted its strength in sporadic hopeless battles. The intelligentsia, where socialist-inclined, was equally anarchic; it did not supply the proletariat with a rigorous and continuing theoretical framework which would help workers to channel their manifest hostility into realistic activity. Lenin developed these points with much greater clarity than his contemporaries, isolating two basic problems:

  1. if the proletariat was small and the peasantry still the overwhelming majority, how could the proletariat execute the historical task of the bourgeoisie, overthrow the Tsar and survive?
  2. how could the proletariat and the intelligentsia be welded into a force capable of this task?

There were a variety of responses:

  1. Many of the Economists and Legal Marxists argued that this was pseudo-problem. Since the coming revolution would be bourgeois in both form and content, the proletariat should restrain itself to supporting the bourgeoisie, thus simultaneously lending the bourgeoisie the strength to overthrow the Tsar and not frightening the bourgeoisie into the arms of the Tsar. Necessarily, at an extreme, this position entailed restraining the proletariat in its day-to-day struggles against capital lest that struggle alarm the capitalists – ‘economic’ and ‘political’ activity could not be plausibly separated.
  2. Lenin accepted up to February 1917 that ‘The democratic revolution will not extend beyond the scope of bourgeois social economic relationships,’ [5] but insisted that the workers must remain independent of the bourgeoisie: the proletariat could not simultaneously fight and support capital. However, the peasant revolts of 1905 persuaded Lenin that the peasantry could play initially at least some revolutionary role – its demand for land would remain revolutionary until satisfied, when it would become conservative in defence of its new property. Lenin therefore argued that an alliance between workers and peasants could force the bourgeois revolution which the bourgeoisie itself would not initiate. If the proletariat did lead the bourgeois revolution, it would be able to carry out the main historic tasks of that revolution: the establishment of a democratic republic, the confiscation of the estates of the large landowners, the introduction of the eight-hour day. If it did not, the Tsar and the bourgeoisie in alliance would create an étatiste capitalism on the model of the Prussia of his day. The choice then, Lenin said, lay between a landowner-capitalist ‘bourgeois’ revolution and a proletarian-peasant ‘bourgeois’ revolution, between, on Lenin’s analogy, the creation of a society modelled on the militaristic despotism of Prussia or on the republicanism of the United States. However, if the second was achieved, the peasantry would immediately become conservative in defence of its new land ownership and ally with the bourgeoisie to oust the proletariat from political power.
  3. The Trotsky-Parvus theory was not important at the time but it proved in 1917 more perceptive than Lenin’s. Trotsky agreed with Lenin that the Russian bourgeoisie would not do the job, but he also said that the peasantry was too disunited between rich and poor to form a united party for long. Again, if the proletariat seized power, it would be impossible to restrain it to executing only bourgeois demands. Inevitably, it would meet problems for which there were only socialist solutions, and would therefore press on into the socialist revolution. He argued, against straight economic determinism, that revolutions were not a simple function of a given stage of national development; the Paris Commune of 1871 had occurred in a country economically more backward than Britain and the United States where no such upsurge had taken place. However, if the attempt at a socialist revolution in Russia was inevitable, it was impossible for it to succeed except if it sparked off a general socialist revolution in Western Europe. Such a revolution would, in its turn, help the Russian proletariat and permit it to complete its socialist revolution. He called the theory that of permanent revolution, a phrase taken from Marx’s 1850 Address to the Communist League, outlining a strategy for a situation in Germany not dissimilar to that in Russia at the time. [6]

Lenin, like most Social Democrats, rejected this view as going too far; such a tactic would in any case disillusion the peasantry before the alliance had even begun; he reiterated firmly that

‘The task of the Russian proletariat is to carry the bourgeois democratic regime in Russia to its conclusion, in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe. This task has today come very close to the first, but it nevertheless remains a separate and second task; for different classes are to co-operate with the Russian proletariat: for the first our ally is the petit-bourgeois peasantry of Russia; for the second, the proletariat of other countries.’ [7]

Lenin maintained this position throughout the substantial fluctuations of Bolshevik support up to 1917. Only after the installation of the Provisional Government following the overthrow of the Tsar, and in response to the extremely radical mood of the St Petersburg workers, did he acknowledge the unrealistic nature of the proposal that the proletariat, having seized power, should then quietly relinquish it. In the case of the second problem, how to weld intelligentsia and proletariat together for the revolutionary task, Lenin’s solution was unoriginal. He accepted the common opinion among Social Democrats, summarised in Kautsky’s statement:

‘Socialist consciousness is represented as a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle. But this is absolutely untrue. Of course, socialism, as a theory, has its roots in modern economic relationships in the same way as the latter emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side, and not one out of the other; each arises out of different premises. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge ... The vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia ... The socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without, and not something that arose within spontaneously.’ [8]

Lenin went on to say that a mass democratic party was impossible in Tsarist Russia (all its members would be gaoled), that therefore any party must be a small secret organisation, demanding absolute dedication from its members lest it be betrayed to the police. Inevitably, it would be relatively undemocratic since it would have to choose its members carefully to avoid infiltration by police spies. It would demand great internal discipine and organisation to avoid suppression: it would have to be composed of professional revolutionaries, not dilettante intellectuals. This, in the circumstances, relatively sensible statement, has been construed as the founding constitution of Stalinist tyranny, as if Stalin could not have reached the idea of tyranny on his own. However, the interpretation is in any case absurd, and contradicted by the actual operation of the Bolshevik group before 1917: in the 1905 revolution, the party consciously opened itself to a mass membership as soon as Tsarist repression permitted, and continued to sustain an open public existence until Tsarist counter-revolution once more forced the Party back into secrecy again. In 1917, the Party was not the prime mover of die revolution – Lenin appealed directly to the St Petersburg workers against the Party which had become relatively conservative and supported the Provisional Government. Lenin was frequently outvoted within the Party so that it could not be seen as a one-man dictatorship. He also indicated in copious references that in the conception of democratic centralism, ‘free criticism plus unity ff action,’ the first was a necessary element:

‘Without debates, conflicts, without a war between opinion, no movement, including the workers’ movement is possible at all. But without a merciless fight against the degeneration of conflicts into quarrels and squabbles any organisation is impossible.’ [9]

The idea that assertions of Lenin inexorably lead to Stalin suggests that ideas are like railway lines – once suggested, men are enslaved to continue down the same line, regardless of changed circumstance and purpose; in the beginning was the Idea. There are a multitude of assertions in Lenin’s work; out of context, as many can be construed as democratic as can be construed as authoritarian, and Lenin’s successors selected what was useful; in that choice the critique should begin. The same points apply to that hoary old chesnut, partiinost (party-ness or spirit), beloved of American Sovietologists. Lenin argued against Struve that an individual with political convictions should behave in intellectual controversy in consistency with those convictions, he should be ‘committed.’ There was no ‘science’ over and above the activity of men, independent of political commitments; ‘objectivity’ was often only a pretension to conceal implicit commitment to the status quo, and Marxists must argue in full awareness of their prior commitment, must behave responsibly, not as if they were idle dilettante by-, slanders. The attitude is as common to the bourgeoisie when faced with an immediate crisis as to Lenin. However, critics have alleged that this position is really the source of Stalinist censorship, again, as if Stalin needed such a modest notion to erect so tyrannical a weapon.

All that has been described so far derives directly from the concrete circumstances of the Bolshevik struggle for survival and Lenin’s attempt to sustain a disciplined party active in Russia, rather than exiled to Siberia or Switzerland. He was a hard man, made many enemies, and most of the subsequent criticisms were made at the time by contemporaries. But his vindication came in 1917, as Trotsky, who campaigned with the greatest bitterness against Lenin’s ruthlessness (and earned equal denunciation from Lenin), acknowledged:

‘Only the highest concentration on the goal of revolution, free from everything pettily personal, can justify this kind of personal ruthlessness ... His behaviour seemed to me inadmissable, terrible, shocking. Yet at the same time it was politically correct and therefore indispensible from the point of view of organisation.’ [10]

In philosophy, Lenin’s main pre-1914 work, Materialism and Empiric-Criticism (written in reply to neo-Kantian revisionism) merely repeated in clumsy and philosophically indefensible form, the crude materialism of Kautsky. However, the great climacteric of the first World War and the collapse of Social Democracy before nationalism, precipitated in Lenin a much wider-ranging investigation of the philosophic roots of Marxism, leading to Lenin’s rediscovery of Hegel’s dialectic and his assertion that no Marxists had understood Capital for a quarter of a century. But Lenin had little time to integrate the dialectic and materialism anew: the two continued in philosophic schism, with more profound consequences under Stalin. For Lenin, in an immediate sense, the dialectic both restored the primacy of human activity and threw a new stress on the contradictory elements in the new capitalism, summarised in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

However, Lenin’s final attempt to extricate himself from the orthodoxies of German Social Decocracy took the form of pinpointing the crucial characteristics of Social Democracy that had disarmed it at the moment of supreme challenge: its bureaucratism, its heavy reliance on the State, and, correlatively, its implicit nationalism. Against this, Lenin passionately reaffirmed freedom as the essence of Marxism in State and Revolution. He refused to relegate the withering-away of the State to some Utopian limbo; he rejected the alliance of socialism and nationalism that had destroyed the Second International and was embodied in SPD acceptance of the State; and he reaffirmed the traditional aim of radical socialist movements: to abolish the State, and begin this task as soon as power has been won. He accused Kautsky of censoring the assertion of Marx and Engels that the State was a product of class antagonisms, an instrument necessarily of tyranny, and that when class domination ended, the administration of society would inevitably devolve so that all would participate and control society. He ends uncompromisingly:

‘So long as the State exists there is no freedom; when freedom exists, there will be no State.’

Once power was gained in Russia, the withering-away of the State had to begin if Lenin was to vindicate his entire position. In May 1918, he promised his audience that those who were not over 30-35 years old would see the dawn of communism. This immense optimism runs through the early revolutionary days; immediately after the October Revolution, he stresses to all Russian workers:

‘Remember, you yourselves now administer the State. Nobody will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take all the affairs of the State into your own hands. Your Soviets are henceforth the organs of State power, organs of full power, organs of decision.’ [11]

In January 1918, he explained to the Congress of Soviets: ‘In introducing workers’ control, we knew it would take some time before it spread to the whole of Russia, but we wanted the workers themselves to draw up, from below, the new principle of economic conditions.’ The affirmation of freedom is too frequent and too passionate to be the cold calculation of a Macchiavellian. The Revolution was the supreme moment of Lenin’s career, both vindication and yet, ironically, a partial critique of the flavour of elitism that sometimes appears in his early work. For Lenin had almost to abandon the Party he had created to win power in order to champion the real popular demands of the moment that brought power in 1917. Whereas he had sought by organisational tactics to keep the Bolsheviks together and sustain a consciousness more revolutionary than the workers possessed in non-revolutionary times, the workers were more revolutionary than the Party when the revolution actually arrived, and the Party had to be whipped into its proper role of championing popular demands – even to the extent of taking its programme straight from popular demands rather than what the Party had already decided. [12] But the winter of 1917-18 saw the administrative machine in ruins, the continuation of the war, the collapse of all authority, and the exhaustion of food supplies. The peasantry no longer sustained the revolution, and there was no European revolution filling the sails of the new Soviet craft. Lenin began slowly retracing his steps; he did not withdraw in explicit theoretical terms, but became increasingly immersed in day-to-day administration, in mere survival. His statements have a rising note of pessimism, a refusal to speculate on what had been achieved and what could be achieved, an explicit denunciation of increasing abuses but without any solutions. The civil war dealt a further staggering blow to the economy and the new Government was compelled to take back into employment thousands of Tsarist officials, forced to send its natural social basis, the urban workers, into the army to fight the White armies, forced to use increasing coercion to win some food out of the obdurate countryside.

Plekhanov once taunted Lenin with a quotation from Engels, and it became, from 1918, increasingly relevant as the claimed social basis of the Party seeped away:

‘The worst that can befall the leader of an extremist party is to be compelled to take over the government at a time when the movement is not yet ripe for the rule of the class he represents ... He finds himself necessarily in an insoluble political dilemma: what he can do is in conflict with his entire previous attitudes, his principles, and the immediate interests of his party; what he is supposed to do cannot be done ... he is compelled to represent not his party, his class, but the class for the rule of which the movement happens to be right. For the sake of that movement he must act for the interests of an alien class, and must feed his own class with phrases and promises along with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are really their own. He who gets himself in that false position is irredeemably lost.’ [13]

The great hopes disintegrated in increasing gloom, only heightened by the Kronstadt revolt, the waves of strikes and peasant revolts: it was clear that the Bolsheviks no longer represented a majority of even the working class. Yet what alternative existed? Only the clear threat that if the White armies were victorious they would institute the first fascist regime and terror in Europe. Lenin did not make his peace with Marxist theory, he left it in suspension. He did not offer an explanation for Bolshevik power in an underdeveloped country in the absence of the European revolution. And in such a forthright man, that is a significant lapse – for no peace with integrity was possible. He made do with piecemeal, pragmatic responses, with attacks on ‘bureaucracy,’ with increasing pessimism:

‘Can every worker know how to administer the State? Practical people know that this is a fairy tale ... The trade unions are a school of communism and administration. When they (the workers) have spent these years at school, they will learn, but it progresses slowly ... How many workers have been engaged in administration? A few thousands all over Russia, no more.’ [14]

The great trade-union debate of 1921–2, where Trotsky’s demand for the militarisation of labour (ie for an explicitly tyrannical regime) faced the demand of the Workers’ Opposition for the abolition of the State and control by Soviets, is significant as an exhibition of Lenin’s purely pragmatic tacking between two extremes. He seems to have lost his moorings, to be aware of the problem but see no social force capable of solving it:

‘If we take that huge bureaucratic machine (the State), that huge pile, we must ask: Who is leading whom? To tell the truth, it is not they (the Communists) who are leading, they are being led.’ Or again: ‘With the exception of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, our State apparatus is very largely a survival of the old one, and has least of all undergone serious change. It has only been slightly repainted on the surface, but in all other things, it is a typical relic of our old State apparatus.’ [15]

In his final testament, it is remarkable that Lenin makes no attempt to offer a general theoretical picture of the situation and a perspective; he is reduced to discussing the relatively trivial personal characteristics of individual leaders as a substitute. In summary, Lenin created in thought and action a renaissance of Marx’s work. Given the demands of the time, the work is incomplete in theoretical terms; he was not able to supply a comprehensive critique of Social Democracy’s treatment of Marxism, but he did demonstrate in his own life the superb unity of theory and practice. From 1918, the validating conditions of his own position broke down in a way that offered no possibility of solution – his honesty and integrity prevented him offering some substitute for such a solution. As dusk fell, no Owl of Minerva took flight, and the tragedy of Lenin remained unrelieved. Around him, he could see clearly an entirely new and unenvisaged order beginning to emerge. The proletariat had gone, leaving the Party alone and isolated as its substitute. The immense struggle by the Russian proletariat to achieve freedom gave way to an even more implacable tyranny than before.

3. Stalin

The work of Stalin spans thirty years of vastly different conditions and problems and it is obviously impossible here to trace the nature of Stalin’s diverse responses, even though such an account would alone give a fully valid critique; particularly since some of the canons of Stalinism are no more than accidental positions in internal Party faction fights that have since been long forgotten. Stalinism is essentially deducible from practice, and Stalin’s exiguous theoretical output is no longer any sort of guide to understanding that practice, but is rather a rationale provided after the event to justify it – theory is not the guide to practice, but its description after it has happened. The change is implicit in the fact that practice has become a tyranny of immense brutality and irrationality that needs to be concealed by, not theory, but ideology. As a result, Stalinism has an opaque quality. We can no longer see its direct connection with the acts of the Soviet State, and we are constantly if dimly aware of a background echo of real but unspoken purposes. Discussion within Stalinism, as befits a false consciousness, retreats into ritual, text-quoting, semantic quibbles and terminological disputes. It is in essence idealist: it begins not with social reality, the facts of experience, but with ideas, the text, the axiom; facts, institutions, people, must be brought into conformity with the idea. Present intolerable practice must be brought into conformity with a past terminology of great hopes and vision that implicitly condemn that practice. Lenin’s writing is now treated in an even more extreme manner than the German Social Democrats treated Marx; it becomes doctrine, ritual, not theory as a guide to action. The texts of Stalinism itself are heavy with mechanical images of great clumsiness, with spurts of malevolence, with theoretical vacuity married to mindless militancy. Zhdanov’s attack on Soviet philosophy in 1947 characterises some of this empty militancy:

‘We have often used in our discussion the term “philosophic front.” But where is this front? ... does our philosophy resemble a real front? It resembles rather a stagnant creek, or bivouac far from the battlefield. The field has not yet been entered, for the most part, contact with the enemy has not been established, there is no reconnaissance, the weapons are rusting, the soldiers are fighting at their own risk and peril.’ [16]

Stalin’s writing is brief and poor in quality, but of central importance for the history of the Soviet Union since it dominated the entire intellectual scene. Its most interesting tendency is a groping for the characteristic forms of conservative thought, and its most striking characteristic, an immense unresolved contradiction. It has no real dialectic in any important sense, but it does have the unlimited voluntarism of Stalin’s actions. Stalin stressed simultaneously:

1 – A material base that seemed to be almost totally independent of men. Ideas merely ‘reflected’ material reality (a point from Lenin), and that political consciousness merely ‘reflected’ the state of technology – put crudely, gasometers produce poetry via men. The actual concrete lumps of the economic base – steel plants, cranes, factories etc – seemed to possess a life of their own and to compel society to transform itself in conformity with this life. E.P. Thompson describes the relationship thus:

‘Ideas are no longer seen as the medium by which men apprehend the world, reason, argue, debate, and choose; they are like evil and wholesome smells arising from the imperialist and proletarian cooking pots.’ [17]

There is no interaction between base and superstructure, only the base dragging the reluctant superstructure along behind:

‘The superstructure is created by the base precisely in order to serve it, to actively help it to take shape and consolidate it, to actively fight for the elimination of the old moribund base, together with its superstructure.’ [18]

2 – A crucial role for theory and the Party. He emphasised ‘the tremendous organising, mobilising and transforming value of new ideas, new theories, new political views and new political institutions.’ With the decline in the natural acceptance of an hereditary aristocracy, Disraeli also paradoxically stressed the crucial significance of ideology, married to leadership ‘charisma,’ in maintaining a status quo that was now industrial and therefore in continual change, for British Conservatism. The two Disraelian elements recur in part of Stalin’s work. For Stalin, his stress on the role of theory embodied his demand that the Party should reach a correct view of the world because its role was supreme in transforming society; theory was the weapon of the Party that could be publicly acknowledged. The Party’s monopoly of theory was heightened by the contention that mass consciousness always lags far behind correct theory. Indeed, in 1937, twenty years after the Revolution, Stalin explicitly argued that ideological errors would get worse the further Russia was from the Revolution:

‘We must destroy and cast aside the rotten theory that with every advance we make the class struggle here would of necessity die down more and more, and that in proportion as we achieve success the class enemy would become more and more tractable. This is not only a rotten theory, but a dangerous one, for it ... makes it possible for the class enemy to rally for the struggle against the Soviet Government. On the contrary, the farther we advance, the greater will be the fury of the remnants of the exploiting classes, the sooner will they resort to sharper forms of struggle.’ [19]

The narrow-eyed suspicion of the muzhik looms through the apparent framework of Marxism.

The central contradiction of Stalinism between determinist theory and voluntarist practice parallels one enforced by British Conservatism – the conjunction, in ideological terms, of complete determinism for the masses (trapped in ‘human nature’ or, in earlier terms, ‘original sin’ for Conservatism, and in the economic base for Stalinism) and complete voluntarism for the rulers (in both cases, through their magical qualities as leaders and their power of creativity in ideology); the division is a class division between the necessarily passive majority and the active ruling class with a monopoly of legitimate initiative. The contradiction in Stalinism was resolved in practice through Stalin’s solitary monopoly (backed by force) of the right to define at any given moment what the material base was or was becoming and therefore what correct theory was. Thus, as a theoretical system, Stalinism needs a Pope, demands the central defining role of one individual or group. In Stalin’s person, and his alone, is the synthesis; he is the substitute for the Party, the working class, the Russian people, the international proletariat, the substitute for the voluntary wishes of the majority.

A number of subordinate but complementary elements exist within the Stalinist framework, a few of which are cited below.

1 – The State. If Lenin had any doubts about the future of the Soviet Union or about identifying what had been achieved, Stalin had no such doubts. He asserted firmly that socialism was possible in one country; that is, that it was possible to create and sustain a proletarian dictatorship in a relatively backward country where the proletariat was a small minority without the aid of a European revolution or the peasantry at home. This was not just a statement of fact, but, for Stalin, a general principle applicable to all countries. Whereas the bourgeois revolution occurred only where capitalism was already fully developed (as Marx said), the task of the new socialist order was not so much to emancipate a highly developed proletariat but to build a new socialist economy which would in practice create a majority proletariat – the agent of the revolution only created itself after the revolution. In Stalin’s words, the proletarian revolution took place

‘when finished forms of a socialist order are either absent or almost completely absent. The main task of the bourgeois revolution consists in seizing power and making it conform to the already existing bourgeois economy, whereas the main task of the proletarian revolution consists in seizing power in order to build up a new socialist economy ... in the proletarian revolution, the seizure of power is only the beginning, and power is used as a lever for transforming the old economy and organising a new one.’ [20]

Not only does this statement generalise an ‘accident’ of the Russian situation to epochal dimensions, but in detaching the agent of the revolution, the proletariat, from the society that creates a proletariat, it leaves no meaning left for the phrase ‘socialist order’ except ‘a developed economic order owned by the State:’ the class content of the phrase is lost, and socialism is no longer about the proletariat but is a tactic for forced economic development. The statement also portrays a political superstructure that has the creative power to shape and expand the economic base, and is necessarily ‘classless.’ The Short Course (History of the CPSU(B), 1938), the standard textbook of Stalinism, in a similar vein describes the collectivisation of agriculture as

‘a profound revolution, a leap ... equivalent in its consequences to the revolution of October 1917. The distinguishing feature of this revolution is that it was accomplished from above, on the initiative of the State, and directly supported from below by the millions of peasants who were fighting to overthrow kulak bondage and to live in freedom on the collective farms.’

The State is thus, in direct contradiction of both Marx and Lenin, not necessarily an instrument of class domination, but a classless creative element.

2 – Complementary to this resurrection of the classless State is the change introduced in the notion of class, a concept central to both Marx and Lenin. Stalin slowly replaced an effective concept of class with the concept of nation. As in the German Social Democracy Lenin so bitingly attacked, nationalism is matched to the use and approval of the ‘representative of the nation,’ the State. If the dialectic is the crucially revolutionary element in Marxist philosophy, so the notion of class, and in particular the active agency of the working class, is the revolutionary element in Marxist social analysis. In emasculating both, Stalin was able to create a conservative ideology in which nationalism, etatisme, the inflated historical role of the individual played characteristically prominent and complementary roles.

3 – The Soviet Union was, then, a ‘classless society,’ in the effective sense – ‘class’ was merely a functional attribute: there was no class struggle between the two permitted classes, peasants and workers, but only harmonious interaction. What class struggle remained prominent was transferred from the domestic to the international scene where it became identified with a nationalist struggle. Class was then attributed to groups or individuals according to their international position, or, more specifically, their attitude to the Soviet Union; Chiang Kai-shek could, thus, be a credible proletarian before 1927. Ultimately, the struggle was said to take place between ‘proletarian nations’ and ‘bourgeois nations’ which, in practice, signified nothing about those countries’ domestic class structure for ‘proletarian’ meant only poor, predominantly peasant (not at all ‘proletarian’) countries driven explicitly by nationalistic revulsion from imperial exploitation, and ‘bourgeois’ meant only anti-Soviet rich countries. The appropriate weapons for such a struggle were primarily diplomatic or professional warfare, not international class struggle except as an adjunct to the two primary instruments of the nation-State. Accordingly the Comintern became not the leader of the international working class but an adjunct to Soviet foreign policy; foreign Communist Parties became the rearguard of the Soviet Union not the vanguard of world revolution. The transition cost the lives of most of the old Bolsheviks not ‘flexible’ or ‘pragmatic’ enough to convert themselves into all they had opposed for so long. Occasionally, the transition did pose problems for Stalin: consider the following nimble hair-splitting – bourgeois nationalism is rightly condemned by Marxists since it has

‘the object of doping the masses with the poison of nationalism and strengthening the rule of the bourgeoisie. What is national culture under the dictatorship of the proletariat? It is culture that is socialist in content and national in form, having the object of educating the masses in the spirit of socialism and internationalism. It would be foolish to suppose that Lenin regarded socialist culture as non-national, as not having a particular national form ... The period of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the building of socialism in the USSR is a period of the flowering of national cultures that are socialist in content and national in form.’

Stalin goes on,

’It may be said that such a presentation of the question is contradictory. But is there not the same contradictoriness in our presentation of the question of the State? We stand for the withering away of the State. At the same time, we stand for the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the mightiest and strongest State power that has ever existed ... Is this contradictory? Yes, it is contradictory. But this contradiction is bound up with life, and it fully reflects Marx’s dialectics ...’ [21]

The emphasis on the national solidarity and harmony of the Soviet Union was slowly increased to reach its maximum during the Second World War, and extended backwards to iron out the great class cleavages of Tsarism that had been the central elements in Lenin’s work. A decree of May 1934 condemned all previous accounts of Russian history and rehabilitated words like ‘homeland,’ ‘patriotism,’ etc. From 1940, the Russian people’s role in history was increasingly glorified, its origins traced back to the civilisations of the Chaldeans and Assyrians of the second and third millenia BC, its historical ingenuity laying claims to all major inventions ever made. As Stalin was the sole active agency in the Party, and the Party in the Russian people, so the Russian people became the sole active agency in the historical population of the world – a pyramid of value over time that reflected the recreation of a clear hierarchy in Soviet society. Even the intermediate people, non-Russian Soviet peoples, received a special intermediate stratum on the pyramid; the Russian people were superior to all non-Russian peoples in the Soviet Union, and should be acknowledged as such even by foreigners:

‘Love for the Russian people ... is not only one of the most important aspects of Soviet patriotism; it is a characteristic feature of every genuine (sic) proletarian movement, even in capitalist countries.’ [22]

Stalin tied together some of the ends of his practice in his two final works – Marxism and the Problem of Linguistics which stresses the common elements of a nation (pre-eminently its language) rather than its temporary class elements, which, in Marxist terms, create internationalism; and The Economic Problems of Socialism which lay down the economic conditions for the prelude to communism. The tone of the latter suggests almost indefinite postponement. Together, the two documents are relatively conservative and cautious – the great battles of industrialisation are over, and a certain mellowness and relaxation are permissible. What Stalin left of the terminology of Marxism could only be increasingly useless for his successors. The great transition from Marxism to ideology had been made, and subsequent ‘liberalisation’ of the Soviet Union takes place against the backcloth not of an open class balance of power, let alone a ‘workers’ State’ with residual bureaucracy, but within a fully-fledged class society, integrated in an ideology of nationalism and class harmony, common interest, meritocracy and accepted social inequality that does not distinguish the Soviet Union in any important respect from the United States.

4. Mao Tse-tung

Stalinism in some ways recreated the dogmatic straight-jacket excluding revolutionary action that Lenin had attacked in the German Social Democrats, and it has been necessary for any revolutionary movement to break out of Stalinism in order to create a revolution, whatever the class content of that revolution. Necessarily, any postwar revolutionary movement has had to act despite the Soviet Union, whether it be Tito, Mao or Castro, since the Soviet Union offered no theoretical framework capable of achieving revolution. However, in appraising this recreation of activism within Marxism, one must clearly and specifically identify the class content of the new activism lest it continue the ‘classless’ ideology of Stalinism merely married to increased activity, lest it be not so much a revival of proletarian socialism but rather the creation of a new rising class merely utilising the rhetoric of Marxism in order to force its own domination.

Of the three people examined here, Mao’s contribution to formal Marxist theory has been the smallest and the most primitive: at most, the loosening of a few themes, at least, repetition of some favoured Stalinist positions. However, Mao’s practice does show substantial divergence from Stalin. It is important to note that Mao’s picture of Marxism derives essentially from Stalinist texts of the thirties, so that transmission of the theoretical heritage is already a bit queer. The loose combination of agrarian populism and radical nationalism that constitutes Maoism in practice has its closest parallels, however, not with the Soviet Union, but with the ideologies of new ruling-classes in other underdeveloped countries; unlike the Soviet Union, Maoism had no proletarian heritage to live down or purge. A much more powerful and consistent theme in Mao’s radical nationalism is the nationalism of some of the May 4th Movement leaders; for example, Li Ta-chao who was similarly disinterested in the dynamic role of domestic Chinese classes, placing complete emphasis on the anti-foreigner, anti-imperialist struggle; he also identified China as a whole as a ‘proletarian nation’ and the white races as the world ruling class. [23] The nation supplants entirely the class, and thus no separate socialist theory is any longer required, for general ‘pragmatism,’ the assumptions of the existing ruling class, will be sufficient. If Stalin saw theory as a useful and perhaps necessary means of obscuring reality, Mao sees it as an entirely eclectically selected element in public relations work, something with mystical-magical qualities akin to the role of a central religious text within a religion but something that can be manipulated at will to suit the purposes of the Party – ‘ideological analysis has become just so much baggage, secondary to the central issue of power itself. With that issue settled, the rest is a matter of what the leadership deems expedient.’ [24] However, the implication of this attitude in theoretical terms is that Mao chose to abandon Stalinism’s heavy stress on historical necessity and the autonomous economic base, leaving alone and free the complete voluntarism of the Party and its leadership: here activism eliminates theory altogether. However, this ‘freedom’ is only possible given the social content and role of the Party itself, the Party’s ‘freedom’ from class content and control. If Stalin retained some identification with the industrial working class, Mao has none. After the shattering blow of the 1926–7 revolution, ‘proletariat’ came to mean nothing more than the Chinese Communist Party. [25] The CCP did not utilise urban classes at all after 1927, and the proletarian membership was less than one per cent in the period of Mao’s leadership before the revolution. The cities in general became the rearguard of the revolution, not its vanguard. That vanguard was a military force, not a class, composed of the tattered remnants of the 1927 Party (leaving their work place to go into exile), and a miscellany of elements – dispossessed peasants and labourers, torn out of the rural production process, professional soldiers, mutinous units of the Kuomintang or warlord armies, even bandits [26], the whole commanded by members of the intelligentsia. Necessarily, reliance for a long period on military force supplants the role of class with the role of an army with its own distinctive character separate from the class origins of its members. Divergence of opinion within the Party was naturally postulated as being divergence between the proletariat or the Party and non-proletariat, but here class becomes most exiguous and usually exists only in the realm of ideas, ‘non-proletarian ideas.’ [27] The cure for such deviations lay not in improving the class composition of the army, but through exhortation and education; consciousness could be shaped by the Party so that it did not embody the class of the person concerned:

‘The Red Army is like a furnace in which all captured soldiers are melted down and transformed the moment they come over.’ [28]

The productive and cultural level of the areas commanded by this new kind of warlord force permitted no sort of radical transformation of the social structure, nor were crucial social forces compelling the CCP to make radical innovations. On the contrary, the CCP was able to tack continuously between different social groups, including landlords, rich peasants and merchants, and had to do so in order to survive in economic terms. Indeed, in 1934, after four years of occupation, Mao complained that rich peasants controlled 80 per cent of the central district within the Hunan-Kiangsi Soviet Republic. [29] The resulting picture is of a fluctuating political force, detached from the Chinese social structure and based in power on its military forces, not its embodiment of social forces, necessarily varying in policy at different times from radical land confiscation to the mildest amelioration of conditions. Since the army was postulated as the vanguard of the revolution, it became the essence of the revolution and the dominant model after the revolution, the precondition for any revolution anywhere [30] and the substitute for the proletariat under the new regime: ‘Our army is the main instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ [31] This is very far from Marx or Lenin’s conception of the class struggle, and has almost fascist undertones: ‘War is the highest form of class struggle and continuation of politics. It is politics with bloodshed.’ [32]

Wherever possible, the Party bound the middle peasantry to itself by land-reform programmes (and since the Kuomintang was consistently dedicated on the land to the interests of the largest landowners, the political polarisation remained relatively clear), but as a means of winning support rather than something which embodied the raison d’etre of the Party. If land reform lost support, then the Party could temper its programme to the central aim.

In the actual process of revolution, the proletariat proper always remained something of a danger [33], requiring constant discipline as soon as the Party came to power. If workers misguidedly took over factories, they were ordered to restore them to the original managers, and factory committees created to represent the work-force were always rendered subordinate to the head of the factory. The new State trade unions created after the Revolution showed no reluctance to demonstrate their role, not as defensive representative organisations but as essentially disciplinary and propaganda agencies of management and State: the trade unions exist

‘to strengthen the unity of the working class, to consolidate the alliance of workers and peasants, to educate workers to observe consciously the laws and decrees of the State, and labour discipline, to strive for the development of production, for the constant increase in labour productivity, for the fulfilment and overfulfillment of the production plans of the State.’ [34]

Special tribunals were organised to gaol those found guilty of economic crimes including negligence, absenteeism, mismanagement of materials, failure to observe regulations, and so on. The implications of abandoning the concept of proletariat in practice are decisive for Marxism, nor is there a Leninism without the proletarian class struggle. In abandoning that struggle, part of a given social structure, a Communist Party abandons its sole theoretical justification within Marxism, as well as abandoning all possibility of effective proletarian internationalism. For Mao, the immediate enemy was a foreign occupier, and he argued from the common interest of the Chinese nation against that foreigner, not for the common interest of the Chinese working class and foreign working classes against their own and each others’ ruling classes. The nation becomes the most important operating concept in pursuit of a national revolution (class nature unspecified), and class merely a derogatory or commendatory term to apply to one’s friends or enemies. Like Stalin’s hairsplitting with form and content, Mao argues:

‘A Communist is a Marxist internationalist but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be applied. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism but only concrete Marxism. What we call Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China.’ [35]

Effective class internationalism is relegated to the realm of sympathy without any operational value in China itself – each ruling class is the problem solely of its own ruled class, and the historical accident of the borders of each nation-State provide the perimeters of operational consciousness. If there is no crucial class in the struggle, the emancipation of such a class becomes meaningless. The prime tasks become ‘classless’: anti-imperialism abroad and industrialisation at home, the two being the main pillars in a nationalist perspective distinguished in no crucial respect from any other radical nationalist movement in an underdeveloped country. The industrial working class, the heart of Leninism, becomes one of several auxiliaries of the ‘people:’ that is, a position explicitly condemned by Lenin and Stalin when it was advanced by Sultan Galiev and temporarily by M.N. Roy in the early years of the Comintern. [36] And if the peasantry is offered as a substitute revolutionary class, one is immediately face to face with the Plekhanov critique of the Narodnik position on the same lines, a critique Lenin shared. Mao escapes by identifying as ‘proletariat’ whatever force opposes imperialist monopoly capitalism on the international plane – and those forces exist solely in the most backward countries of the world. Just as Mao had no role for urban classes in the domestic revolution, so China now has no role for the people of developed countries; they can merely support Pekin’s military force.

If the tasks are ‘classless’ because the agent of revolution is ‘classless,’ all social forces willing to accept CCP leadership are equally relevant. Mao revived the ‘Four Class Bloc’ strategy originally formulated by Stalin, despite its disastrous results in 1926–7, and began to move towards a united front with the Kuomintang before the Comintern made such a policy mandatory, again, despite the terrible massacre of the CCP by the Kuomintang in 1927. The CCP demonstrated that no social forces within it inhibited purely political alliances with the class enemy – the Japanese were a greater evil. Indeed, Mao went much further to describe the Kuomintang in quite unnecessarily glowing terms:

‘In the course of its glorious history, the Kuomintang has been responsible for the overthrow of the Ch’ing, the establishment of the Republic, opposition to Yuan Shih-k’ai, establishment of the Three Policies of uniting with Russia, with the CP, and with the workers and peasants, and the great revolution of 1926–7. Today it is once more leading the great anti-Japanese war. It enjoys the historical heritage of the Three People’s Principles; it has had two great leaders in succession – Mr Sun Yat-sen and Mr Chiang Kai-shek ... One can foresee a brilliant future for the Kuomintang.’ [37]

No hint here of the 20–30,000 murdered per year between 1927 and 1930 by the Kuomintang, but rather the spirit of one warlord flattering another in the hope of a mutual division of spoils.

The ideological form of the new State embodied its ‘classless’ conception – new democracy. Mao described one of its functions in 1945:

‘The task of our New Democratic system is ... to promote the free development of a private capitalist economy that benefits instead of controlling the people’s livelihood, and to protect all honestly acquired private property.’ [38]

Nothing here divides Mao from a similar -classless’ conception in the hands of Gaitskell or George Brown. In the 1949 Constitution of the ‘People’s Democratic Dictatorship’ (class content unspecified) the ‘national bourgeoisie’ is part of the ‘people,’ but the ‘bureaucratic capitalists’ are not, being in league with imperialism; the means of identifying the ‘bureaucratic capitalists’ is not, however, their role in the structure of the economy or society, but merely whether or not they support the CCP. In practice, the ‘national bourgeoisie’ included many of the very largest capitalists (fully in league with imperialism when it suited their purposes), including the ‘four families’ of the Kuomintang period. The transition to full State ownership was similarly delayed in the interests of national unity and CCP power – Ch’en Yün, Minister of Heavy Industry, assured private owners in 1950:

‘In China, which is backward in industry, it will be progressive and beneficial to the country and the people for the national capitalists to develop industry and make investments in it for a long time.’ [39]

The ideology then continues, both before and after the Revolution, to place almost sole effective stress on common national elements, rejecting the idea of a necessarily divisive class system in China; the residue of class still utilised is a function of nationalist aims, describing those who are foreign or linked to foreigners versus ‘true Chinese.’ By implication, as with Stalinism, Maoism inherits, uses and praises the pre-Revolutionary achievements of the Emperors, implying a common national culture linking past and present that is more significant than temporary divisions, the unification of this common culture above class; and Marxism comes in the claim that Mao’s has created a ‘Sinification of Marxism,’ a Chinese or Asiatic Marxism. Of course, defining what constitutes ‘Chinese culture’ or Sinification is the prerogative of the Politburo. This nationalism also laps over into generalising the CCP experience as the only model for future revolutions, and as a profound ‘discovery,’ as if revolution were a matter of technique: ‘The tactics we have derived from the struggle in the past three years,’ Mao writes in 1930, ‘are indeed different from any other tactics, ancient or modern, Chinese or foreign.’ [40] This is historical nonsense, but it is interesting to note in the correspondence between the Yugoslav and Soviet Central Committees in 1948, the Russian ridicule of the Yugoslav claim to have invented Partisan warfare and, in doing so, to have made a major contribution to the 1945 Allied victory. [41] Of course, in China’s case, at this point, the demand for national revolutionary autonomy embodied in the claim to have created a ‘Chinese Marxism’ tends to contradict the claim that other countries should follow China’s road to power; the difference is that between a Party out of power, seeking to establish autonomy versus Russian domination, and the Party in power, commanding a position equal to the Russian and demanding like the Russians supporters in foreign Communist Parties. In power as a nation-State, the CCP becomes immediately aware of a world arena that was hitherto subordinate in the struggle within China. However, even if classes do not exist in China in the dynamic sense, disagreements do arise. As mentioned, the means to overcome disagreements lies in ideology, in theory, in public relations work by the Party, in the Party’s susceptibility to all manner of social pressures whatever its source. No domestic divisions (as opposed to divisions linked directly to imperialism) cannot be so overcome, for society has no structure necessarily engendering certain sorts of conflicts. Where conflicts take place, it is because the moral nature of the opponent of the Party has not been educated to indoctrination by the Party – it is not material reality which shapes certain forms of consciousness, but rather moral illiteracy and ignorance. In a country as terribly poor as China, material reality cannot be changed in the short term, but ideology can – a position with, again, strange echoes of Western conservative thought. Fidel Castro, being less implicated in the orthodoxies of Marxism-Leninism, has described this position more boldly in claiming that there is no ideology in a revolutionary struggle, only a road to power which ‘acquires’ different ideological beliefs en route (choosing them and dropping them according to the needs of the struggle for power). There is thus no role at all for theory proper in the revolutionary struggle. Che Guevara acknowledges this when he describes the Cuban revolutionary leaders as ‘only a group of fighters with high ideals and little preparation.’ [42] The concern should be then finding the road to power, rather than pursuing the right political aims and locating those aims in an appropriate analysis of the situation, and the assurance of success lies not in appraising the objective situation but in the group’s spirit, morale, will, drive, etc. The echoes of Sorel and anarcho-syndicalism’s activism without theory are here very loud. In the orthodox position, analysis of objective conditions should indicate how the struggle should be undertaken, and ‘armed struggle’ is only one of many possible means, not the ‘highest’ or ‘real’ one; indeed, the use of open force is likely to be the very last stage when most of the issues have already been settled, not the first. Continuous guerilla warfare means that military tactics replace revolutionary theory, that professional soldiers take the place of class struggle rooted in the existing social structure, and that power is concentrated in the hands of generals, with mass consciousness being a merely subsidiary factor not the dynamic; soldiers need to obey orders, not appraise their experience within work relationships. Again, historically, the stress on the magic of guerilla warfare is nonsense since it does not explain the larger number of failures – why did the CCP take such an incredibly long time to win power; why do the Malayan, Philippine, Burma Communists not win; why did the Telengana peasants, the Nagas and Mizos not win in India; why indeed do the Khampa rebels not win in Tibet against China itself? Resorting to military action depends crucially on having an enemy that is in a weak political or military position, that weakness being autonomous not the result of Communist activity.

The position is then essentially voluntarist – armed struggle creates the objective conditions for winning power, and, in Castro’s words, those conditions can be created in the ‘immense majority of Latin American countries’ if between four and seven dedicated guerillas can be found. [43] The CCP is not so cavalier about theory as the Cubans, but theory is seen as a weapon in the realisation of voluntarism:

‘Socialist ideology (sic) becomes a weapon in mobilising and organising the masses and becomes a material force in society ... it becomes instrumental in establishing a socialist economic base by acquiring political power and by destroying the capitalist economic base with that power.’ [44]

Another commentator argues,

‘men are not the slaves of objective reality. Provided only that man’s consciousness be in conformity with the objective laws of the development of things, the subjective activity of the popular masses can manifest itself in full measure, overcome all difficulties, create the necessary conditions, and carry forward the revolution. In this sense, the subjective creates the objective.’ [45]

It is in this context, allied with peasant superstition and belief in the power of magic, the magic of the formula, the text and the aphorism, that reading the works of Mao has been prescribed in China as a cure for any problem, from medically treating burns, or selling water melons, to winning a table tennis game. [46] We are here clearly in the world of popular medieval Christianity rather than Marxist theory. More broadly, the voluntarism is clearly a form of Idealism, with the CCP defining the nature of the Idea.

Given these elements, a number of crucial Marxist ideas lose all specific meaning. For example, ‘contradiction’ becomes not the central source of a variety of conflicts that necessarily derive from the structure of society (overcoming the contradiction entails transforming that structure), a dynamic concept insofar as it relates to analysing society over time, but merely any sort of conflict. Mao’s revision of ‘contradiction’ was begun by Lenin (from whom the suspicious ‘non-antagonistic contradiction’ derives [47]), and entails a separation of contradictions which demand the transformation of society and contradictions which do not: the decision on which sort is which being reserved to the Party and its estimate of the moral intentions of the opponent. The CCP has revived the Stalinist heresy, dropped by Khrushchev in 1956, that the ‘class struggle will go on for a long time in a socialist society until communism is attained ... for from five to ten generations’ [48]; the class struggle consists of irreconcilable contradictions, but reconcilable contradictions seem likely to exist always. In 1956, The People’s Daily (5 April 1956) said that contradictions would continue to exist under socialism and under communism since individuals would continue to be good and bad. Mao, after his earlier exercise in the field, subsequently theorised that any organisation contained leaders and led fulfilling different functions so that contradictions were inevitable. It was the role of leadership to manipulate such contradictions so that they were ‘non-antagonistic’ and fruitful for production. He went on to elaborate:

‘The contradictions between ourselves and our enemies are antagonistic. Within the ranks of the people, contradictions among the working-people are non-antagonistic, whereas those between the exploiters and the exploited classes have a non-antagonistic aspect as well as an antagonistic one ... Exploitation of the working-class for profit is one aspect, while support for the Constitution and willingness to accept socialist transformation is the other ... The contradiction between exploiter and exploited that exists between the national bourgeoisie and the working-class is in itself an antagonistic one. But in the concrete conditions existing in China, such an antagonistic contradiction, if properly handled, can be transformed into a non-antagonistic one.’ [49]

The statement of what seems a verbal quibble, could be accurately rephrased that the Party will accept the support of anyone provided they do as they are told. It should also be noted that Mao here implicitly sees the CCP as outside the social structure, above the clash of contradictions, not as embodying one side or the other.

The elimination of specific proletarian class content, the stress on the role of an elite regardless of its class content, automatically blurs crucial distinctions that Marxists have made and make it impossible, in terms of domestic social structure, to appraise a country like, say Egypt, based upon the coup d’état of radical army officers. Its classification is read off from its foreign policy, not its domestic class structure, even though its foreign policy may be entirely opportunistic and short-term. Thus, in the CCP, the test case of revolutionary position turns on one’s attitude to the United States, and any sort of critical stance, even from a conservative military autocracy like Pakistan (a member of US alliances and recipient of US aid) is greeted with great fraternal warmth. In similar terms, China in 1959 extended financial aid to the subsequently deposed Imam of Yemen, despite the nature of his regime. If the revolution abroad means opposition to the US, the revolution at home means industrialisation, building the national economy for purposes of national power. In the process, severe puritanism is needed to sustain capital accumulation, the atmosphere of a beseiged fortress. The puritanism, the poverty and severity, are justified as ends in themselves: ‘The kind of life advocated by Comrade Feng Ting,’ one Chinese Calvin maintains, ‘which would provide good things to eat and wear, good places to live in, and cordial relations between husband and wife and between parents and children, does not conform with the Communist ideal.’ [50] Production is an end in itself, and the apotheosis of Marxism as the instrument of primitive accumulation reaches completion.

5. Conclusions

The treatment of the three people examined here is very thin given the immensity of their life’s work, but it is necessary to put them together, even if inadequately, to demonstrate the evolution of an ideology. Lenin is presented here as an heir to Marx in a way that German Social Democracy was not. He broke out of the constricting non-activism of Social Democracy to reunify theory and practice, to restore the idea of the active agency of the industrial working class, to defend the aim of freedom as the essence of Marxism against the bureaucratic, étatiste and nationalist revision of Marxism in Social Democracy. For Kautsky, the revolution was ‘inevitable,’ predicted by a passive contemplative science, regardless of the activity of men. It was just this viewpoint that Stalin revived in his conception of the role of the economic basis: socialism was, by definition, the economic structure of the Soviet Union, not a system of social relationships and power. He similarly replaced State and Revolution by the Social Democratic alliance of State and nationalism, replacing class with nation. Mao Tse-tung made yet again the attempt to break out of this constricting dogma into activism, but, given the conditions of China, at the cost of Marxism, not its recreation in Leninist terms. His substantive revisions in theoretical terms are small, but his essentially voluntarist practice, his pursuit of national revolution rather than world proletarian revolution, his stress on military action from the most backward areas of a country over many years, constitute major revisions in fact. What constitutes the revolution here is not the most advanced urban masses securing their own emancipation by their own efforts, but guerilla warfare by the least advanced rural groups, operating outside the ordinary social structure over many years, in order to seize power and begin industrialisation. His revival of activism made tremendous achievements in defeating imperialism and beginning the immense process of development, but it should not obscure the social content of the Chinese Revolution since this social content will determine the future course of that revolution. It is precisely the ‘classless’ quality of Maoism which makes it particularly appealing for radical intellectuals, Marxist or liberal; the absence of specific class content, the romanticism and elitism, the special dominant role in manipulating ideology granted to intellectuals, make it attractive to those who are frustrated and outside the normal social structure with no social forces behind them. A would-be new class within a rotting social structure fits naturally into Maoism, although even more naturally into Castroism which carries less ideological baggage with it. Outside the underdeveloped world however there is little role for such intellectuals except identifying at a distance; Maoism in Western intellectuals can coexist comfortably with the elitism of the Labour Party or Scandinavian Social Democracy; the common aspiration to ‘classlessness’ makes this easy. The escape from class here is however little more than the demand to be the ruling class, to be the intellectual elite that guides society in ways the elite knows best, and links to a very ancient tradition among European intellectuals, at least as old as Plato. It is married in Maoism with the praise for ‘pragmatism,’ that is, escaping from a specific political programme embodying the demands of a specific class. Mao is said to have reshaped Marxism pragmatically, to have ‘discovered’ the peasantry as a revolutionary class, as if this were one of the elements which were optional in Marxism. However, the writing of Marx is explicitly put forward as the theory appropriate to the consciousness of the industrial working class in the most advanced countries. To see Marxism as a technical guide to revolution that can be ‘applied’ to quite inappropriate circumstances, is to try and exploit the tradition of one sort of revolution for the furtherance of a different sort, to see Marxism not as true consciousness but as ideology. The social content cannot be left out to leave a ‘technique,’ the purposes of the theory cannot be changed for other purposes except in non-Marxist and purely eclectic terms. If Marxism is to mean anything it must have some bearing on the works of Marx, and, more particularly, the central elements in that work; otherwise; it means no more than pursuing a revolution, any sort of revolution, at any cost with any purpose. And there is no obvious reason why a bourgeois revolution should not be executed under Marxist banners. More important, socialists completely disarm themselves before a new class regime: they no longer have the weapons of appraisal and criticism to determine the true and the false, they no longer have a vision of the end which determines the stages towards that end.

A number of other points emerge, and in particular, a critique of the assumption that holding a theory guarantees the holder against ultimate betrayal. Theory is not a thing that one holds, not an ideology that is given; it is the summation of certain concrete experience related to certain ends, constantly changed by new experience relative to the same ends. If the ends change, then the theory is likely to change, but, even where it does not, it serves a quite new purpose and therefore must be appraised quite separately. That the Soviet Union teaches its people certain ideas says nothing about what the Soviet people will do until we know the purposes those ideas are designed to achieve – theory has no life of its own independent of the men who use it, no autonomy or inbuilt logic that necessitates that men do things regardless of what they want to do. To believe the opposite is to reify theory, to be guilty of a form of idealism that is usually disowned as soon as stated, but is no less common among socialists. It is of interest to note that this view of theory, or rather ‘ideology’ as it is usually called, is usually associated with complete voluntarism – in fact, theory serves only a window-dressing function to disguise unstated purposes. It should be clear from what has followed that merely using a terminology, popular in this century for a number of reasons, offers no guarantee that the user is pursuing purposes for which the terminology was originally designed to achieve, that he is aligned with the right social force. Marxism in the Soviet Union has atrophied into an ideology, no less obfuscating than any other ruling class ideology but with interesting echoes of anti-Communist conservative ideologies. Ossowksi compares the evolution of Marxism to that of Christianity, also a radical doctrine at its inception:

‘After the words and practices that had served the revolutionary movement had been accepted, they were given a different content or their application was restricted to situations without relevance for everyday life. The sharing of bread and wine continued to bear the name “communion” when it was transformed into a sacrament given at the altar. On Maundy Thursday the Bishop continued to carry out the ritual of washing beggars’ feet, but this action did not involve any risk of lessening the gap which divided him from them nor help to make the relations between the Church dignitaries and the Christian population more democratic. Again, every worker who had the opportunity of making a direct approach to Stalin was able to address him as “comrade,” while a charwoman or porter would be called “porter” by those who had unlimited bank accounts, could shop at special stores and had access to special social services for themselves and their children.’ [51]

Given the objective structure of the Soviet Union and China and the roles Stalin and Mao chose to play, it was and is impossible for them to embody the will of the proletariat; in that sense, disputation on the question is as irrelevant as discussion as to whether President Johnson could or could not be a Marxist. Such discussion necessarily separates consciousness from the reality of experience and makes it autonomous, independent of reality; we are back with the Idea leading a life of its own.

Much of the obscurity attached to socialist attempts to appraise the Soviet Union and China turns on the irrelevance to the twentieth century of the classical idea of ‘bourgeois revolution.’ The point has already been argued by Lenin and Trotsky, but the full implication of their case has not been unpacked – in some cases, because they themselves have been interpreted as seeing the world as nothing but a dichotomy between a private and a State (equals socialist) economy. But revolutions to establish the bourgeois democratic republic on the basis of private property and a free market have not occurred this century except in very qualified forms – usually, with the State playing an increasingly important part, even so far as to extinguish the private and democratic elements. Private capital becomes not an alternative class, but a weak auxiliary of the class that holds the State, the bureaucracy, army or new intelligentsia. The immense convulsion of the underdeveloped world, bringing to power in many countries a new class to perform the functions of the old West European bourgeoisie, to smash the old society and begin the process of ruthless industrialisation, can now only be conceived in terms, not of private ownership, but of State capitalism. Primitive accumulation has its own ruthless logic, not impeded for long by the scruples of socialist consciousness except in the voluntarist propaganda of ideology. State capitalism, whether decorated with quotations from Marx or not, is no less a class society in fact or embryo than any other based upon private ownership, whether its genesis lies in a Communist Party seizing power, a non-Communist popular movement doing so, or a military coup by radical young army officers; and it is not legitimate to read off the nature of the present regime from how it reached power. The terminology of Liberalism which identified the West European bourgeois revolution was created by the rising class itself. The new State capitalists have not created their own terminology, but borrowed more or less extensively from the authoritarian traditions of European socialism – Fabianism, German Social Democracy, and Stalinism. This should not be surprising, nor mislead one’s assessment of the colonial revolution: Maoism is not the ‘new phase’ of Bolshevism, but its death. Together, Stalin and Mao from different positions have revised Marxism sufficiently to render it a contradiction of its original purposes. Such is the irony of history.


1. ‘No amount of historical materialism can get round the fact that history is made by men, that men have minds, and that mental dispositions are by no means so mechanical as to be entirely governed by the economic situation.’ Edouard Bernstein, Die Neue Zeit, XVI, p. 749.

2. For an examination of Mussolini’s Marxism, cf. Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, London, 1965, pp. 151ff.

3. RWSDP, Manifesto, 1898, cited in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, I, 1950, p. 4. Compare Kautsky’s description of the 1905 Russian Revolution: ‘a bourgeois revolution in an epoch when bourgeois ideals have come to complete bankruptcy, when bourgeois democracy has lost all faith in itself, when it is only on the soil of socialism that ideals can flourish and energy and enthusiasm develop.’ Cited E.H. Carr, Op. cit., p. 51.

4. L.D. Trotsky, Lenin, Lanka Sama Samaj, 1951, p. 9.

5. V.I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy, 1905.

6. L.D. Trotsky, Results and Prospects, St Petersburg, 1906, translated by Brian Pearce, New Park, 1962.

7. V.I. Lenin, Some Theses, Collected Works, Vol. 18, p. 357.

8. Cited by V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, 1903.

9. V.I. Lenin, Two Methods of Fighting and Disputing, Collected Works, Vol. 17, p. 73.

10. L.D. Trotsky, My Life, Berlin 1930, p. 188.

11. Cited E.H. Carr, Op. cit., p. 244.

12. Cf. Lenin’s speech of 11 November 1917, Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 30.

13. F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, 1850.

14. Cited E.H. Carr, Op. cit., p. 247.

15. How We Should Reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, Selected Works, Vol. 9, London 1937. Cf. also: On Cooperation; Pages from a Diary; Better Fewer but Better from January–March 1923.

16. Zhdanov, On Literature, p. 103, cited in G.A. Wetter, Dialectical Materialism, London 1960.

17. Socialist Humanism, The New Reasoner, 1/1, Summer 1957, p. 105.

18. J.D. Stalin, Marxism and the Problem of Linguistics, 1954, pp. 9–10.

19. Report, Plenary Session, CC CPSU, March 1937, in Mastering Bolshevism, New York., 1937, pp. 29–30.

20. J.D. Stalin, Problems of Leninism, 1926.

21. Speech, XVI Congress of CPSU, 1930, Collected Works, Vol. 12, pp. 278–81.

22. Problems of Philosophy, Academy of Sciences, 1948, 3, p. 7, cited in G.A. Wetter, Op. cit., p. 271.

23. Lecture, May 1924, cited in S.R. Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, London 1963. Cf. also, Meisner, The China Quarterly 24, October–December 1965, p. 141.

24. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Stanford, 1961 edition, p. 311.

25. Isaac Deutscher reads ‘proletarian’ off from China’s international alignment (along Stalinist lines) and the attempt of the CCP to industrialise China, i.e. to create a proletariat. Thus substitutionism becomes not an error and impossible, but a virtue. Cf. Maoism – Its Origins, Background and Outlook, The Socialist Register 1964, ed. R. Miliband and J. Saville, London 1964.

26. Cf. Appendix to Harold Isaacs, Op. cit., and On the Rectification of Incorrect Ideas in the Party, resolution to 9th Conference of CO of 4th Army of Red Army.

27. Ibid.

28. Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 83.

29. Report, 2nd Soviet Congress, Juichin, January 1934.

30. Liu Shao-ch’i, Australasian TU Conference, Pekin, November 1949, Hsin Hua Yueh Pao, Pekin, 15 December 1949, p. 441 or Li Li-san, TU Work, in China Digest, Pekin, 14 December 1949, p. 19.

31. Hsiao Hua, Director Army Political Dept, Pekin Conference, reported The Times, 27 January 1966.

32. Ibid.

33. Compare Che Guevara, where clearly the proletariat is an inhibiting factor in the new-style revolution: ‘It is more difficult to prepare guerilla bands in those countries that have undergone a concentration of population in great centres and have a more developed light and medium industry, even though not anything like effective industrialisation. The ideological influence of the cities inhibits guerilla struggle,’ Monthly Review, July–August 1961.

34. Edict, 10 May 1953, Labour Laws, Pekin, p. 56.

35. Report, 6th Plenum, CC CCP, 1938, On the New Stage.

36. Cf. E.H. Carr, The Russian Revolution 1917–23, III, London 1953.

37. Report, 6th Plenum, CC CCP, October 1938.

38. On Coalition Government, 1945. Compare the admittedly less qualified statement of Fidel Castro: ‘We are not opposed to private enterprise. We believe in the usefulness, in the experience, in the enthusiasm of private investors .... Companies with international investments will have the same guarantees and the same rights as national firms.’ Plan for the Advance of Latin America, Havana 1959, p. 32.

39. Current Background, Supplement 2, 20 June 1950, p. 5.

40. Mao Tse-tung, A Single Spark Can Ignite a Prairie Fire, January 1930.

41. Compare the more modest position, given its subordinate role in the Communist movement, of the Viet Minh: ‘(Our) vital experience on the proper revolutionary line, revolutionary forces and revolutionary method has blazed a new path that suits many countries,’ Tuyen Huan, April 1964; and ‘Our Party’s military line ... is a great contribution to the national liberation revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America,’ Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 22 December 1964.

42. Hoy, 16 July 1963.

43. Speech 16 January 1963. Cf also Che Guevara, Guerilla Warfare, Havana 1960, p. 11.

44. Hsu I-jang and Lin Ching-yao, Hsin Chien-she, March 1959, pp. 44–6, cited Meisner, Op. cit.

45. Wu Chiang, translated in Shram, Ideologie dialectique et dialectique da réel en Chine, Paris 1963. Cf. also Liu Shao-ch’i, Speech, CCP Congress, 5 May 1958.

46. Report, The Times, 28 February 1966, 1 June 1966.

47. V.I. Lenin, A Great Beginning, 1919, in The Essentials of Leninism, II, London 1947, p. 492.

48. Lu Ting-yi, Politburo alternate and Minister of Culture, 26 November 1964.

49. Speech, 27 February 1957.

50. China Youth, 31 October 1964.

51. S. Ossowski, Class Structure in the Social Consciousness, trans. S. Patterson, London 1963, p. 190.

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 19 February 2020