To what extent was the communism of Lenin and Stalinism a corruption of Marxist ideology?
The collapse of twentieth century communism in 1989 sent a clear message to Marxists throughout the political world: the fall is certain proof of the demise of Marxism as a world-historical force. The relevance of Marxism in modern political debate was seen to be lost, causing many left wing idealists to veer away from the ideology, and move towards a more centralist position. The defining question behind such a loss of confidence in Marxist doctrines seems to be: ‘Who, or what, caused such a fall from grace?’ Such a question has evoked various responses; however, one widely backed theory is that the communism of Lenin and the Stalinist regime defamed the Marxist ideals, thus causing grave misrepresentations of the ideology from the majority of the western world. This essay intends to analyse the extent to which Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet regimes were indeed a corruption of Marxist ideology, and question whether Marxism can have any feasible role in modern political theory.
Vladimir Illich Lenin led the Bolshevik party to revolution in 1917, armed with Marxist ideology and a faithful following. However, even at this early stage, Lenin had parted from Marx’s ideas concerning the revolution. Marx believed that for the revolution to be truly successful, the nation would have to be in the capitalist stage. This would ensure that the workers could develop their ‘revolutionary class consciousness’ naturally. Lenin and the Bolshevik party saw this as folly, and believed that Marx had underestimated the ability of a well-organised professional revolutionary party to overthrow the state even when the ‘classic’ conditions for the destruction of capitalism were absent. The Bolsheviks still believed that it was impossible for a socialist revolution to take place in a relatively backward country. It took Lenin’s personal ascendancy to convince the people that a successful revolution was indeed possible in Russia, and that this would be succeeded by revolutions elsewhere. In these circumstances, the hope was that like-minded governments in more advanced countries would then help the development of socialism in Russia. With the slogans of ‘all power to the Soviets’ and ‘bread, land and peace’ the Bolsheviks secured a majority in the Soviets and achieved a revolutionary insurrection that enabled them to take control in a situation where there was, in effect, a power vacuum.
Shortly before the seizure of power, Lenin had written the ‘State and Revolution’, which had been wildly optimistic about the way in which socialism could be established after a revolution. The reality was quite different, for the Bolsheviks were now faced with four tasks that were not easily reconcilable. Firstly, they had to establish themselves in power when they had only a minority of support in the country. Second, they need to implement measures which would demonstrably change social relationships in a rigidly authoritarian society based upon traditional hierarchies. Third, they needed to maintain the temporary alliance between the peasantry and the industrial proletariat that had enabled them to seize control. Finally, they needed to bring about massive economic growth so as to improve living standards. It is perhaps hardly surprising that they failed, particularly as their more positive aims were necessarily subordinated, until the end of 1920, to urgent task of winning a civil war. However, the situation led to a particular form of authoritarian socialism becoming increasingly marked. When the Bolshevik Party came into power, they did so under the pretence of being the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’: working in their name and furthering their ideals. Therefore, all differing opinions were seen as ‘bourgeois’, and received scathing remarks and great hostility from the Bolsheviks. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ required that the newly founded state be fully aware and protected against the threat of counter-revolution by the recently dispossessed bourgeoisie. Under Bolshevik rule, this manifested itself in the suppression of all other political parties and the existence of a monopolistic, one-party state. This monopoly of ideological ‘wisdom’ could only lead to severe repression. While during the early stages of the Bolshevik’s being in power there was a real attempt to open up culture, spread educational opportunities, and bring about sexual, by December 1917, the Cheka (or secret police) was established to discover and suppress any attempts at counter-revolution. It used summary executions and imprisonment against any suspects – some of whom were regarded as such simply because of their social origins. After an attempt on Lenin’s life in May 1918, the Red Terror was promulgated, leading to thousands of executions and the Cheka operating almost as a state within the state. By 1920, the economy was also destitute after six years of war; the support of the peasantry was in danger of being lost completely and some eight million people had died from disease and malnutrition.
While many European Socialists were exhilarated by the first Marxist-inspired revolution, others were less convinced. As they watched the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the revolutionary terror, and the evolution towards a one-party state, their doubts as to whether this was really socialism increased. In some cases, particularly amongst the leaders of Western European socialist parties, such sentiments were probably reinforced when they heard themselves denounced as traitors and renegades by the Soviet leaders. Other Western socialists were prepared to accept that such harsh measures might be necessary in Russian conditions, where there had been no tradition of democracy and where counter-revolutionaries also used terror as a political weapon, but they did not believe that they could be justified in countries where peaceful change through constitutional means might be possible. Others went further than this and questioned, quite rightly, whether the Bolshevik Revolution could even be justified in Marxist terms. One of the most powerful arguments of this kind was put forward in December 1920 at a Congress of the French Socialist Party. The Congress was held at Tours to decide whether or not the party should affiliate to the new Communist International. Léon Blum, who would become prime minister in the French Popular government in 1936, was the leader of one of the groups that were totally opposed to such an affiliation. In his speech, he claimed that the dictatorship in Russia stemmed from its conception of revolution. Instead of a seizure of power following a long period of evolution creating the preconditions for socialism, it had been interpreted in terms of insurrection by a small group, who then needed to create these preconditions. Whereas the Marxist conception was of a temporary, impersonal dictatorship based on mass support, the Bolshevik one was of semi-permanent dictatorship exercised by a centralized and hierarchical party. Blum was thus implying either that socialism could not be established this way, or that the only form of socialism that would emerge was one that negated its own ideals because it was inherently undemocratic. The fissure which opened up between communism and traditional Marxism developed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, but this split highlights some aspects of Lenin’s thinking which had been revealed even before 1914 and which were institutionalized after the revolution.
The most fundamental element in all this was his absolute and total commitment to the goal of socialist revolution. This underlay his whole strategic and tactical approach, including important innovations. For example, Marxists gad normally tended to regard the industrial working class as the vehicle for socialist revolution and had been rather indifferent to the peasantry and the forces of nationalism. However, Lenin had understood that a revolution could take place in Russia only on the basis of alliances with the peasantry (the overwhelming mass of the population) and the numerous subject nationalities that sought liberation from rule by the Russian majority. Nevertheless, it was Lenin’s belief in the necessity for a particular kind of party to hasten the revolutionary process that was of particular relevance to the split from true Marxist ideals.
Lenin put forward his idea of a vanguard party, based on revolutionaries fighting a class war in the same way that the military fought a conventional war. This differed from anything suggested by Marx or Engels for, although they had taken it for granted that a party would be necessary, they had also insisted that the working class should emancipate itself. However, Lenin now argued that, left to itself, the working class would develop ‘trade union’ consciousness, but not revolutionary consciousness. In other words, conflict over pay and working conditions would inevitably arise, but the workers would not themselves locate the issues within a wider Marxist framework. Since workers would remain integrated within the dominant ideological framework, it was necessary for revolutionary socialist consciousness to be brought to them by a vanguard party that did understand Marxist theory, whose members would tend to be bourgeois intellectuals. This was obviously an extremely contentious notion. Lenin might argue that this was not party control over the workers because it would be working with them, but there were certainly elements of elitism: the workers had a false consciousness that must be redirected by those with superior understanding.
The serious implications of this notion were reinforced by Lenin’s ideas about party organisation, for all the emphasis was upon secrecy, centralisation and professional revolutionaries. Some of his thinking was certainly shaped by the need to operate in clandestine conditions during the Tsarist autocracy, which he contrasted with the relatively open conditions in Germany – the intended first nation for the Marxist Revolution. Yet he slid from a discussion about the Russian situation to far more general notions, which implied that centralism and secrecy were far more important to him than democracy. Furthermore, the very idea of a party having the right to impose a single view on its members was highly questionable. The result was surely bound to be one in which policy directives became diktats, or orders, with most members simply having to trust that the decisions had been made through discussion and democratic debate. This was compounded by the fact that the party discourse under Lenin was always based on binary alternatives: policy was either bourgeois or socialist – shades of grey did not exist.
Lenin died in 1924, leaving a Soviet Russia beset by economic and political problems. The Communist Party has a tight, autocratic hold on all affairs within Russia – civil liberties almost ceased to exist, with any dissidents being sent to the notorious Gulag prison camps. Paradoxically, Lenin had created a dictatorship: not by, but, of the proletariat. This regime was handed over to Joseph Stalin in 1927 – but even the means in which he attained this power is a clear reflection upon the nature of the Soviet regime. There was no open, democratic competition for power in which large sections of the population could take part. Instead, there was a closed, secretive struggle for power among a few, unknown upper-party members. The Soviet Union was to retain this undemocratic nature until its demise in the 1980s.
Stalin’s first move as leader of the Soviet Union was to embrace the doctrine of ‘Socialism in One Country’ – an ideological shift which displaced him from the classical Marxist ideals. Announced in 1924, the policy proclaimed that the Soviet Union should protect itself from the capitalist world by effectively closing its borders with the outside world. It also implied that the Soviet Union should focus upon building socialism within the country, rather than encouraging and instigating international, world revolution. This meant Soviet Russia adopted an inward-looking, isolationist approach to world affairs, and, evidently, such a stance did not help the democratic cause.
Stalin also oversaw a dramatic upheaval of the economy, announcing the introduction of the Five Year Plan in 1928. Under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, some degree of private property had been allowed, with agriculture and small scale industry being permitted. Lenin’s economy was a mixed one; a combination of private and common ownership. Stalin’s economic plans brought about rapid industrialization and the complete removal of all forms of private property and business. From 1929, agriculture was collectivized and millions of Soviet peasants were forced to give up their land in order to work on state farms. In this sense, under Stalin, economic affairs took the form of state collectivization or ‘state socialism’. The capitalist system was completely removed and replaced by a system of central planning, dominated by the State Planning Committee and administered entirely by powerful economic ministries in Moscow.
Further changes took place in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Lenin’s democratic centralism became less democratic and more centralised, leading to a circular flow of power, where the leader had a disproportionate and unequalled amount of power. Stalin could make executive decisions about who was elected for influential posts and, of course, this lead to his supporters being given jobs ahead of anyone who could potentially question his political authority. In fact, by the 1930s, anyone who dared to question, criticise or act disloyally against Stalin was dealt with brutally in a series of purges carried out by the secret police. The membership of the Communist Party was almost halved, with over a million people loosing their lives. Stalinism became totalitarianism, as a monolithic ruling party developed, in which all forms of debate or criticism were eradicated by terror, genocide and exile.
Although many commentators have tended to regard the Leninist party as pivotal for the subsequent establishment of the dictatorship by Stalin, it can equally well be argued that he destroyed and bypassed it. Many revolutionary Marxists, who are highly critical of the direction taken by the Soviet Union, therefore continue to believe that the Leninist conception of the party, based on the system of ‘democratic centralism’, was valid and problems only developed with the later applications of that conception. Yet it is notable that two of the most eminent Marxist revolutionaries of the era had themselves criticized Lenin’s notion of the vanguard party when it had first been formulated.
Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was a revolutionary Marxist in the German SDP. She was often deeply critical of the leadership of her own party because she believed it was becoming too dominated by short-term reforms and was losing sight of the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. However, she believed in mass action by the working class as the way of bringing about change and was critical of Lenin’s concept of a vanguard party. In 1903, she attacked it for ‘ultra-centralism’, which she equated with the ‘sterile spirit of the capitalist overseer’. She wrote, “Lenin’s concern is not so much to make the activity of the party more fruitful as to control the party – to narrow the movement rather than to develop it, to bind rather than unify it.” Once the Russian Revolution took place, she gave it cautious support and was a leading figure in the German Communist Party when it was established in December 1918. However, the next month she and her lover Karl Liebknecht (another prominent figure in the new party) were arrested by German cavalry officers, who were suppressing a revolutionary uprising. Both were murdered while in custody, so Luxemburg did not live to witness the subsequent development of the Soviet system and the uses that would be made of the Leninist party.
The other early critic was Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). When Lenin developed his concept of the party, Trotsky had not supported him, but subsequently he changed his mind and became a leading figure in the revolution of 1917 and the post-revolutionary regime. When Lenin died in January 1924, Trotsky was one of the two most probable successors, but he was out-manoeuvred by Stalin, who expelled him from the Soviet Union in 1929. In exile, he denounced the betrayal of the revolution and sought to revive the original spirit of Bolshevism as he interpreted it. As a result, he was assassinated by Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940. Trotsky always insisted that there was no basis for Stalinism in Lenin’s concept of the party, and this view has generally been taken by the Trotskyite parties that subsequently developed in many parts of the world. However, his initial verdict on the idea could be taken as a prediction of the methods that Stalin would later use and from which Trotsky himself would suffer. In 1904, he thus wrote: “The inner-party politics, these methods [of Lenin] lead, as we shall yet see, to this: the party organisation substitutes itself for the party, the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization and, finally, a ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” In this sense, Trotsky pre-empted the subsequent fall of Marxist ideals within the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and as a result could be considered the truest Marxist of the three.
After analysing the communism of Lenin and Stalinism, it seems that both were indeed a corruption of true Marxist ideals, and it appears that Bolshevism lead to the fall of Marxism as an ideology. The monopolistic, one party state; Stalin’s doctrine of “Socialism in One Country”; the lack of civil liberties, professional pressure groups; free media and debate; and the terrible images of death, imprisonment and strife are not what Marx envisaged when he wrote the “Communist Manifesto”. Conversely, Marx saw a nation where “the free development of each [would be] the precondition of the free development of all”. The totalitarian and brutal nature of the Soviet regimes have lead to the defamation of Marxism, and subsequently a loss of credibility for the ideology. As a result critics have sensed an authoritarian side to Marx’s writings which would not have been seen if the Leninist and Stalinist dictatorships did not behave as they did. For example, Marx’s belief that history is based upon a predetermined course apparently leaves little room for free will. Marxism’s scientific pretensions have also be viewed as ‘implicitly repressive’, since they gave Marxist leaders an absolute certainty in their views – indeed Stalin professed he was the human embodiment of Marxism. Marxism has been denounced as ‘inherently monistic’, since rival ideas which could threaten the Marxist cause are dismissed as ‘bourgeois’.
However, critics fail to recognise that there is a succinct difference between Marx’s ideals and those implemented by Lenin and Stalin. Marx always advocated socialisation of the means of production, rather than Stalin’s policy of state ownership in the form of collective farms; Marxism stresses that the state should ‘wither away’, rather than become increasingly powerful and bureaucratic; material rewards would be distributed according to the egalitarian principle of need, rather than to bolster a communist elite; and a true Marxist state would be based upon decisions from grassroots democracy rather than the entrenched power of a monopolistic party. In this sense, the demise of Soviet Russia does not mean the demise of Marxism, but instead the fall of Stalinism. If this is indeed true, it implies that Marxism is ever present. Nevertheless, in modern political thought, can Marxism continue to be relevant as an ideology? The rise of the New Left, the emergence of radical ecologism, and the distinct anti-capitalist feeling among much of the politically astute population seems to suggest that Marxist ideals are still relevant, even if the possibility of a Marxist revolution taking place is small. Marx’s ideas advocate that the struggle against concentrations of authority is indeed a healthy one, and therefore modern Marxists see their ideology as a means through which people can act as a check upon the increasing power of capitalism in the modern world. This is a vital part of democracy, and Marxist participation in politics can only improve and encourage pluralism in government. Marxism is, therefore, relevant in modern political debate, and the ideology must do all it can to distance itself from the atrocities committed by its fathers betrayers, Lenin and Stalin.