This is Section b of Chapter 5 of Beyond Classical Marxism.
World War I devastated Russia, and after the successful Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, there ensued a further devastating civil war which was finally won in 1920. A year later the Bolsheviks, having lost the support of both the peasantry and the working class, instituted a dictatorship of the Party over all of society, posing as the representative of the working class in building a socialist society. Even within the Party no organized dissension was allowed, and step-by-step Stalin came to absolute power over the Party itself, finally eliminating (i.e., murdering) anyone who might mount a challenge to his authority. This culminated in the show trials of 1936-1938 in which people were forced to make completely fabricated confessions in order to avoid torture and execution, to avoid the killing of their family members, and even out of Party loyalty. As well, Stalin ordered massive executions of even his supporters who might possibly have qualms about his policies.
The death toll was enormous. Of all the “Old Bolsheviks” who had taken part in the Revolution, not a single one survived. The highest ranks of the military were decimated, resulting in an army which was ill-prepared for Hitler’s invasion in 1941. Intellectuals of all sorts were arrested and shot, and (slave) labor camps with millions of prisoners were created in remote areas – conditions there were so horrible in such camps that great numbers died in them. Robert Conquest, who has published at least twenty books on history and politics, has estimated that one million people were executed outright and a total of twenty million died12. (Evidently another twenty million peasants died in the forced agricultural collectivization of the early 1930’s.) Under “socialism”, Russia had become a brutal police state terrifying its whole populace, from which it was able to emerge only after several decades.
In the West, anticommunists were only too happy to expose how badly this experiment in socialism had turned out, while intellectuals looking for a humane alternative to capitalism strongly tended to disbelieve the stories that were coming out of the Soviet Union, and of course members of communist parties accepted Soviet propaganda hook, line, and sinker. Even today many revolutionaries excuse this monstrous police state as having been necessary because of pressure of the capitalist countries, and even depict Left critics of the Soviet Union as being, objectively, in league with the capitalists. This is seen, for example, in a fairly recent diatribe by Michael Parenti [Ref. 1] against “left anticommunism” which castigates, for example, George Orwell for publishing 1984 in the middle of World War II when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life against the Nazi invaders. He also trashes Noam Chomsky as being an unrepentant left anticommunist following “part opportunism, part careerism, part willful denial (or ignorance) of true capitalist and imperial dynamics, and part attachment to the comforts of being within the respectable fold of ‘permissible’ criticism”. (No mention that Chomsky isn’t allowed to present his views in our mass media!)
A spectre is haunting socialists – the spectre of Leninism. The basic problem is that of a top-down, one-party state – a dictatorship supposedly ruling in the interest of the working class. It is not necessarily true that Leninism leads to the horrendous Soviet police state of the 1930’s and 1940’s, although the Pol Pot experience in Kampuchea (Cambodia) also shows the extreme which Leninism can result in. But we also have the example of Cuba, which evidently does very well in meeting the needs of its people as well as providing crucial aid to people around the world. (However, I would no longer automatically dismiss the concerns of its dissidents.) Furthermore, terrible as Leninism can become, the worldwide capitalist system is far worse in oppressing the people of the Global South in order to extract their wealth to the Global North (particularly to the 1%). Indeed, the Soviet Union played a highly progressive role in assisting people fighting for their own liberation (in Vietnam, in countries of Africa especially those living under apartheid). So it is arguable that even if a Leninist dictatorship is required, it can be far better than capitalist oppression and may well evolve into the sort of society that we seek. Socialists must always bear in mind the drawing power of Leninism.
But the ghost of Leninism still pervades our thought because Marxism-Leninism can claim to constitute the sole road to “scientific socialism”, whereas we are unable (and unwise) to make such a claim as to the necessary development of society. The outlook of Marxism-Leninism is that the basic theory has already been worked out, and one but needs to follow this theory, as enhanced continually through political practice, to achieve socialism (and eventually, the chimera of stateless “communism”). It no longer is in vogue for Marxists to dismiss the importance of non-economic struggles, rationalizing that all such problems will be overcome when the working class takes over, but such struggles tend not to be regarded strategically as being integral to implementing socialism, which is still thought to be basically an economic struggle between the working class and the capitalists. We are no longer living in 19th-century England, when Marx and Engels concluded that an increasingly immiserated working class combined with the ruination of the middle class would necessarily result in a socialist revolution. There are some thirty million small businesses operating in the U.S., and the working class, far from being universally downtrodden, features a wide range of economic existence extending up to that of the “middle class”. Surely the upper layers of the middle class will betray no desire to overcome present oppression – most of them supported Donald Trump’s election in 2016, for example – but a great many workers also supported Trump on the basis of their affinity with white supremacy and conservative Christianity. U.S. society is a lot more complicated than envisioned by Marx and Engels, and their singular reliance on the proletariat to effect socialism is chimerical.
So what can we say in reply to Marxism-Leninism; what will guide our political work? From Marx and Engels we do have the vital philosophy of historical materialism, as presented at the beginning of Chapter 2, as well as an understanding of dialectical development to arrive at the theory of dialectical materialism (perhaps as reformulated in my first book4). Marx’s analysis of capitalism, although formulated in rather different economic times, may still provide crucial insights into the functioning of capitalism. And of course we must look to the working class as the major instrument of the transition to socialism, both because it constitutes the large majority of our populace and because of its critical role in the functioning of the economy. (We can look, for example, to the French workers’ uprising in 1968 which nearly seized control of the state, to the present “Yellow Vest” movement in France, to the illegal but successful teachers’ struggles in various conservative U.S. states.) But we must also vigorously engage in progressive non-economic struggles, often including middle-class persons; in certain circumstances these will be our primary concern. Especially, Michael Yates (Ref. 2) has made clear how completely white supremacy has penetrated our social fabric, and how important it is for activists of color to be in the leadership of progressive struggles.
Overall, we must be guided by the absolute need for complete democracy, as well as by what we consider to be humane goals (reproductive rights, LGBT rights, an end to racism and immigrant-bashing, meaningful productive work, full health care and education, much leisure time, adequate food and housing, etc., etc.). The society which develops will depend upon what people choose to do, and we must strive to build what we envision as being “socialist” society – it is not something whose contours are preordained by recourse to some version of “scientific socialism”.
Marxist-Leninist “socialism” is not what we should be seeking. Let us make clear how our proposed socialism (“democratic socialism” or “socialism from below”) fundamentally differs from the bogus “socialism” following Marxism-Leninism:
1. Both real socialism and Marxism-Leninism call for nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, in contrast to social democracy, but socialism has a necessary place, of indefinite duration, for small-scale private enterprise.
2. Rather than the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the total control of society by the working class), we consider that elements of the amorphous middle class will also have a major say in determining the development of socialist society.
3. Socialism will be completely democratic (one person, one vote), with restriction on the amount of campaign expenditure so that the wealthy are not able to buy elections.
4. People must be able to organize to promote their political preferences, even voting out of office a socialist government if desired by the majority. (However, organizing to oppress people will not be permitted.)
5. A self-proclaimed “vanguard party” will be permitted, of course, but it won’t be allowed to set up a one-party state. Our outlook is of the self-organization of the people, not of following orders from above.
6. The rule of law must be obeyed, which means an independent judiciary and a constitution which guarantees basic human rights. There was no such thing in Marxist-Leninist “socialism”: changing the law at will was rationalized as being an expression of the maturity of the class struggle.
- Michael Parenti, “Left Anticommunism: The Unkindest Cut”, 1/21/16 (Global Research, https://www.globalresearch.ca/left-antiicommunism-the-unkindest-cut/5502859).
- Michael D. Yates, “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name”, Monthly Review May 2020, pages 40-50).