In the nineteen century Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels put forward a vision of “scientific socialism” which energized a great many revolutionaries seeking to transcend capitalism. This was based on Marx’s detailed analysis of the working of capitalism. According to the theory he developed, the working class would necessarily be increasingly immiserated, the middle strata would lose their independent well-being and become proletarianized, and the whole capitalist system would collapse, leading to a proletarian revolution which would establish (at least in time) a democratic classless society run by, and for the benefit of, the producers themselves.
This vision of the development of society is not exactly what has occurred since the time of Marx and Engels. Capitalism has overcome many major difficulties and remained in full control, and while a successful proletarian revolution did indeed take place in a mostly peasant society (Russia) under the leadership of a vanguard Communist Party, with the pressure of extremely difficult circumstances this party became a brutal one-party dictatorship (“Stalinism”) ruling society supposedly in the interest of the working class and the peasantry. This “really existing socialism” served to point the way forward for a great many socialists, at least until this top-down bureaucratic monstrosity collapsed of its own weight around 1990.
However, there remained increasing numbers of socialists inspired by Marxism who considered democracy to be absolutely essential to the liberation of humankind. This has been termed “bottom-up socialism”, although we simply call it “socialism” as being the only ethically valid continuation of the pathbreaking work of Marx and Engels; the fundamental differences between the (dominant) Stalinist version of “Marxism-Leninism” and our “socialism” are presented in our essay “Marxist-Leninist ‘socialism’” (www.bcmsocialism.org/marxist-leninist-socialism).
Although rooted in the past, Marxists of all stripes have of course developed Marxist theory through practice under current conditions and in the process become relevant to present society. For example, although Marx and Engels gave overwhelming emphasis to the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie (particularly at the point of production), it no longer is deemed acceptable to thereby ignore non-economic struggles (“for appropriate resolution when the working class finally takes over”), a salient example of which was racist opposition to school busing in Boston by some Stalinists in the 1960’s in the name of not disturbing working-class unity.
But the ghost of the past, of the errors and current irrelevance in the certain development of Marxism in both theory and practice, lives on. In some cases we call for fundamental change in the outlook of traditional Marxism, such as now regarding small-scale private enterprise as being essential indefinitely for the new socialist society; in other cases we warn against not fully rejecting wrong ideas and practices, such as vanguardism. Our view is that those Marxists who are fully cognizant of the necessity of democracy in a socialist society are clearly on the right track, and our aim with this essay is to bring to their attention the possible presence of the ghost of Marxism.
As outlined above, Marx and Engels advocated what they called “scientific socialism”, based on Marx’s analysis of the then-current working of capitalism. Of course, any science has to be continually improved upon as more relevant information is obtained and new conditions are taken into account, but did Marx’s analysis really lay the basis for understanding present-day capitalism? To what extent can it be considered to inform modern economic theory, so that its product was really “scientific” socialism?
Michio Morishima1 has tackled this question from a viewpoint sympathetic to Marx’s theories, seeking to incorporate them as much as possible into modern economics. In the introduction to his book (p. 5) he writes: “We make Marx stand out not only for his own sake, but against the economic theory of our time. Our aim is to recognize the greatness of Marx from the viewpoint of modern advanced economic theory and, by so doing, to contribute to the development of our science.” Nonetheless, after exhaustive analysis he finds that Marx’s labor theory of value, his theory of exploitation, and his theory of the breakdown of the capitalist mode of production are not generally suitable to current economic science (p. 4).
This is not to say that Marx’s insights into the nature of capitalism are not still of great value to us, but rather that taken as a whole Marxist economic theory cannot be taken as fully “scientific”, and its result, “scientific socialism”, isn’t really that. This really shouldn’t be a problem for us. For example, according to the labor theory of value, in an eight-hour day the first five hours of work provide fair compensation to your employer for what she/he is paying you for the purchase of your labor-power, but the product of your remaining three hours is just grabbed to enrich her/him. This is a seemingly scientific explanation of “exploitation” of the working class, and it can energize socialist revolutionaries. But does such a calculation really matter to ordinary workers? They know the boss is screwing them in any case, and that it would be better for themselves to have all of the fruits of their labor.
I should point out that the early Marxists (especially Engels) attempted to systematize materialist dialectics as the basis for a scientific understanding of the development of society, just as advanced mathematics provides such a basis for the science of physics. A dialectical outlook, of everything being in a state of flux rather than qualitatively fixed (as promoted by bourgeois ideology), can be of great help in such understanding, especially since there are definite laws of dialectical development to provide guidance. However, I am grieved that so few socialist activists today take the study of dialectics seriously. I have attempted to incorporate feminist theory into the traditional Marxist presentation of the theory of dialectical materialism2, and as well have demonstrated that Engels and others were dead wrong in viewing non-living phenomena (such as described by physics and chemistry) as exhibiting dialectical development3.
The danger: If one regards traditional Marxism as having laid the basis for a valid “scientific socialism”, one may tend not to try to develop an accurate understanding of what is going on in the world; after all, the “science of society” has already been worked out and all that is really necessary is to apply it to current conditions. The result can be unquestioning dogmatism.
As described in the Introduction section, Marx and Engels viewed the transition to socialism (and subsequently to the communist classless society) as resulting from a proletarian revolution following the inevitable collapse of capitalism. Thus what was primary in this scenario was the fundamental conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, particularly at the point of production. That the working class could, and indeed must be, the instrument for the attainment of a new, humanly decent society was certainly reasonable, for that class alone could successfully challenge the economic rule of the capitalists, and they would be stirred to such action through their collective experience in production. And such potential for class action was well demonstrated by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, which was meant to spark proletarian revolution throughout Europe.
Unfortunately, the working class did not successfully rise up as required in central and western Europe in the aftermath of World War I; these workers were too accepting of the capitalist ordering of industrial society in spite of the hardships of the war. We cannot rightfully blame the willingness of each country’s working class to fight for their country against the workers of other countries, on a “labor aristocracy” misleading them. The problem was far deeper: the working class simply wasn’t doing what Marxists wanted and expected them to do. And now in the United States we find Donald Trump with the fervent support of a very large section of the working class in laying the groundwork for an authoritarian, and possibly fascist, society.
We have to stop kidding ourselves, in our great overemphasis on the working class as the instrument of effecting socialism. Yes, certainly the working class is still key to this transition, because of its numerical size, its vital role in the production process, and its collective experience. But workers are not one-dimensional, as many Marxists tend to believe. There are many non-economic struggles which are vitally important in shaping workers’ lives and ideology (for better or worse), concerning such matters as racism, homophobia, reproductive rights, misogyny, spirituality and religion, environmental degradation, family, poverty, even animal rights, etc. At any given time, one or another of these non-economic struggles may be primary for people, rather than that against capitalist exploitation. (Right now in the U.S., there is the powerful Black Lives Matter movement which envelopes the attention both of Blacks and of many white people and other people of color.)
So socialist activists must immerse themselves in both economic and non-economic struggles for progressive social change. Rather than treating middle-class people merely as auxiliaries in the struggle for socialism, they must accept them as equal participants in this struggle and work integrally with them on common progressive goals. In all of this political work with both working-class and middle-class people, socialist activists must advocate their vision of the new society as appropriate, without trying to dominate progressive organizations “for the sake of the revolution”.
The danger: There may be gross overemphasis on the role of the working class in effecting socialism, with attendant negligence in participating in non-economic struggles and belittling of the vital role of middle-class activists in these struggles.
The extreme version of vanguardism, of course, is that of the practice of the Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism and of the communist parties around the world which followed in its footsteps. In this outlook, the communist party rules society on behalf of the people as a whole, but it itself solely determines what is to be done; the rest of society just follows the esteemed judgment of its leaders. And even within the “vanguard party”, although in principle all party members have the right to debate and help set policy to be followed, in practice the higher levels dictate to the lower levels what is to be done. Forming factions within the party advocating a political course of action is forbidden. This “dictatorship of the proletariat” is actually the dictatorship of a small group of top-level all-wise people.
So “vanguardism” refers to the attitude that you, because of your superior knowledge and ability, are able to determine what others are to do, politically. It is inimical to democracy, of course, and thus to socialism as we envision it. Trotskyism, the other major version of Marxism-Leninism, often makes a serious effort to function democratically within the party, such as by expressly allowing the existence of factions; this is hardly surprising, considering how undemocratically they have been treated by Stalinists.
But even well-meaning Trotskyist organizations may, in my opinion, succumb at least partially to vanguardism. As a case in point, in Seattle we have on the City Council Kshama Sawant, a member of the Trotskyist party Socialist Alternative. She has been doing an outstanding job and is now in her third term of office. Socialist Alternative may be considered to be a vanguard party, to which I have no objection so long as it is meant to be a vanguard party rather than the (sole) vanguard party. This means that members are expected to carry out decisions arrived at by the party’s leadership, although the leadership is to be selected periodically through a democratic process involving all the membership. In principle I have no objection to such functioning in order to ensure that the party carries out a chosen political line (although I don’t think that doing this strictly is very useful), but she was ordered by her party’s leadership concerning how to conduct her political work: how she should vote on a controversial appointment for the police chief, and who should be or not be in her office staff. I feel that office-holders should be free to make such decisions themselves (while giving serious consideration to the advice of the party), in order to be able to respond properly to the concerns of their constituents.
So, in contrast to an attitude of vanguardism, we must have complete democracy (again, “socialism from below”). This means in particular one-person/one-vote (rather than one-dollar/one-vote), the right and ability of the people to vote a socialist government out of office, the rule of law (an independent judiciary and a constitution). The middle class must be expected to have a major say in the shaping of the new society, and in fact small-scale private enterprise must be regarded as existing indefinitely in the new socialist society. (This outlook of continued forms of capitalism constitutes a fundamental break with traditional Marxism, and is explained in detail by Miliband4.) Our outlook must be the self-organization of people, rather than expecting them to just implement policies arrived at from above.
The danger: It is easy to lapse into a vanguardist attitude, even while rejecting the extreme authoritarianism of Stalinism. The antidote to vanguardism is complete reliance on democratic functioning, and resisting the urge to dominate.
1. Michio Morishima, Marx’s Economics: A Dual Theory of Value and Growth (Cambridge University Press, 1973).
2. Dave Jette, A Reformulation of Dialectical Materialism (self-published, available at www.lulu.com; 2019). A brief version of this work is given in Beyond Classical Marxism (self-published, available at www.lulu.com, 2020), as its Chapter 2, as well as at www.bcmsocialism.org/dialectical-materialism.
3. Dave Jette, appendix “Is Nature Dialectical” of A Reformulation of Dialectical Materialism (self-published, available at www.lulu.com; 2019). It is also available at www.bcmsocialism.org/is-nature-dialectical/.
4. Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (Version, 1994). A synopsis of this economic model is given in Beyond Classical Marxism (self-published, available at www.lulu.com, 2020), as Section A of its Chapter 5, as well as at www.bcmsocialism.org/socialist-economy/.
A comrade has given feedback on this essay, and considers the three warnings to be right on target. However, he continues with the following:
I did want to comment on some of the points in the vanguardism section though. Maybe it is inevitable in a piece focused on Marxism’s ghosts, but I think that what you wrote over-emphasizes the role of ideology in producing undemocratic and vanguardist organizations and underestimates structural and “social roots” factors. What’s there implies that groups that believe in Trotskyism or, even more so, “socialism from below”, are more likely to be democratic than those whose ideology is “Stalinist” or descended from “Stalinism”. I don’t think that’s right.
Regarding Trotskyism, it’s true that more in this tradition allow factions and have other rules that supposedly make them more democratic. But in practice, even besides the example of Socialist Alternative that you cite, I don’t think Trotskyist sects – and I think no more than one or two Trotskyist groups anywhere in the world at any time became more than sects, if even that – have a practice more democratic than “Stalinist” or Maoist ones. For example, I don’t think there is a single Trotskyist group that was ever as democratic as the Italian Communist Party, which while criticizing Stalin and the CPSU, was in ideology out of the same Third International framework. The difference is that this organization became a genuine mass party and as such, functioned with a degree of democracy unknown to small sects.
As for “socialism from below”, I think the term is appealing used in a generic way, but as it applied to a specific tendency within the left, it has an even more miserable track record on democracy (and other things) than most “Stalinist” groups. The largest “socialism from below” groups in the world – Britain’s Socialist Workers Party and the U.S. International Socialist Organization – bordered on cults, complete with sexual abuse and coverups by the leadership. They had utterly undemocratic internal practices, plus the workerism you warn against. They structured themselves the same as so-called Stalinist groups and the fact that they claimed allegiance to “socialism from below” didn’t end up meaning much of anything when it came to internal democracy. I think it undermines the correct warning you are giving against anti-democratic practices and vanguardism to imply that these other variants of Marxism are in some way ”better” than traditional Marxism-Leninism.