Where in the World is Karl Marx? George Hewison, October 1, 2004
Perhaps the greatest ideological setback for international labour, as a result of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, was a body blow delivered to the works of Karl Marx, institutionalized by the Soviet Union and the world communist movement under the rubric Marxism-Leninism.
Did Marx, who discovered the inherent contradictions in capitalism, deserve to suffer the fate of the Soviet Union?
If you believe that it was fundamental revisions of Marx on the subject of social revolution that led to the October Revolution, it would then be fair to re-examine Marx on the meaning and character of, and prerequisites for, social change in order to see whether or not his original theory was basically sound, or warranted the drastic revision that has now been tested by history in the Soviet experiment and found wanting.
Such an examination is imperative if Marx is to get his fair hearing; and if a new generation that moves inexorably towards social transformation is not to be derailed by theories, ostensibly Marxist, arising from that failed historical experiment. It is also important for the students of Marx who believe the class struggle remains the decisive force for historical change.
For the international working class, the birth of the Soviet experiment initially represented hope for a world sick of world war. Ginger Goodwin, martyred labour leader whose funeral was the occasion for the first general strike in Canada in 1918, was an admirer of Soviet Russia. His grave (in Cumberland BC) has the hammer and sickle engraved on his granite tombstone. Winnipeg General Strikers of 1919 passed motions in support of the Russian Revolution, while the forces against the strike saw the fight for union conditions in Winnipeg, and throughout Canada, as incipient Bolshevism.
How ironic that the death of the Soviet Union eighty years later barely stirred a ripple amongst Canada’s working class. Nevertheless, that class now finds itself in a deeper hole than before. Why? Because capitalism, as it goes through its own upheavals, trumpets the end of history. Its apologists say we live in the best and only possible social system. Socialism doesn’t work they tell us!
Labour and progressive humanity has had to shift strategy and tactics from a bi-polar world of two competing superpowers to the one which has been throwing its weight around the globe for the past two decades, with little counterweight save and except contradictions within capitalism itself.
By the time Soviet founder Lenin had emerged as a major theoretical force in the international social democratic movement, Marx was already undergoing a major revision by others in the movement. Edouard Bernstein, Fredrich Engel’s literary executor, had already drawn the ire of Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Kautsky and others in the German social democratic party for suggesting that while Marx had been right about the essentials of revolution, he had been wrong on the timetable. According to Bernstein, the objective and subjective conditions for revolution were not ripe. “It has been maintained in a certain quarter that the practical deductions from my treatises would be the abandonment of the conquest of political power by the proletariat organized politically and economically. That is quite an arbitrary deduction, the accuracy of which I altogether deny...I set myself against the notion that we have to expect shortly a collapse of the bourgeois economy, and that social democracy should be induced by the prospect of such imminent, great, social catastrophe to adapt its tactics to that assumption. That I maintain most emphatically.”
Such an assertion coincided with a sharp turn in the German capital’s approach to social democracy. From the severe Bismarckian anti-socialist laws, the expanding German capitalist state had started to pursue the “carrot and stick” approach to the working class, an approach long practiced in England. Marx and Engels had noted that the capitalist always rules by alternating between concessions and rewards to the working class on the one hand and repressive measures on the other.
By the time of Engels death, German social democracy was already a major factor in German politics despite severe repression. The policies of concession by the capitalists did have the desired effect. The electoral successes of German Social Democracy were tempered by subtle muting of its revolutionary rhetoric. Bernstein gave a theoretical legitimacy to this shift. Marxists began to split into two camps. Roughly speaking, one group abandoned revolution to a distant and unpredictable horizon and set their primary sights on winning concessions from capitalism. The other camp insisted that the objective conditions for socialism were already ripe and all that remained was a program to organize the workers to overthrow capitalism. The tactics and organizational forms of both wings flowed from these two estimations of history.
Kautsky (initially critical of Bernstein) held firmly to both the theory and the timetable of Marx for a period. He and Luxembourg saw nothing in the emergence of imperialism, as a stage of capitalism, which changed the revolutionary tasks of the proletariat.
Lenin’s theories, borrowing heavily from Kautsky, argued that the conditions for proletarian revolution were objectively ripe. To him, imperialism represented the final death agony of capitalism, and all that was required was the organization of the proletariat to seize power. Lenin’s early work focused on how this organization (and the related fight against “opportunism” within the working class movement) could be accomplished.
Lenin’s supporters have long suggested that Leninism is the application of Marx to the imperialist epoch, since Marx did not live long enough to see the growth of cartels and the fight for division of the world among the largest capitalist states. They maintain that Lenin also filled an important void in the theory of “THE PARTY” to which Marx seemed to pay scant attention.
Thus the historical joining of Marx and Lenin, cemented from the October Revolution onward should hinge on these two broad and related categories: the objective and subjective conditions for revolution.
Marx summarizes a lifetime of study on the matter of social change in the preface to one of his classics, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. It is a long quote, but necessary to put the October Revolution of 1917 and what followed in context:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men (sic) that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or-what is but a legal expression for the same thing-with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of these productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution…No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed (my emphasis); and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.
Students of Marx need to ask whether capitalism, even to this day, has exhausted its productive potentialities. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is now obvious that in 1917, militant socialists convinced themselves that capitalism was acting as a brake on productive forces. Revolutionaries, backed by a powerful anti-war sentiment of the time, abandoned the objectivity demanded by Marx for the subjective rhetoric of imminent revolution as THE solution to war.
Since then, the class struggle, capitalist competition and all of the other laws discovered by Marx continued to operate and to force capitalism to innovate. The productive forces continued to develop through World War One and Two, a Great Depression and up to the present.
World War One was the most sanguine expression of capitalism to that point. There is little doubt that the pragmatic or social reform wing of social democracy had forgotten “workers of the world unite”, i.e. rejected internationalism in favour of the jingoism of their respective national capitalists. The result was the slaughter of millions of working people. World War I was also an historical catastrophe for the theory of working class revolution.
For the revolutionary wing of social democracy who argued that to end the war, it was necessary to end capitalism, the October Revolution became the test. Up to his famous April 1917 announcement, Lenin had argued against the possibilities of revolution breaking out in backward Russia for all of the reasons advanced by Marx. His Bolshevik Party was therefore taken by surprise when he unveiled his now famous April Thesis. Immediately before Lenin’s return to Russia, Stalin and Molotov (on behalf of the Bolsheviks) had been in unity talks with the Mensheviks to push the Provisional Government leftwards. Lenin’s “All Power to the Soviets” in April put an end to those discussions.
Lenin had already anticipated his critics with his “uneven development of capitalism” and “revolution breaking out in the weakest link in the capitalist chain” theories. The Russian proletarian revolution in Russia would be the spark to world revolution, he and his new recruit, Trotsky, asserted. Socialists were expected to take sides. Marxist debate was especially vicious around “social chauvinism”, and/or the backwardness of Russia as a candidate to lead the world proletarian uprising. Objectivity about the real state of capitalism’s inner contradictions (the War notwithstanding) and real possibilities for socialist revolution disappeared. Those who insisted on a debate were dubbed “armchair philosophers” or “renegades” who would be bypassed by the triumphant march of the proletariat.
Bolshevik leaders Zinoviev and Kamenev were branded “scabs” on the eve of the October Revolution, because they publicly denounced the planned October coup in Gorky’s newspaper “New Life”, insisting it would not lead to world proletarian revolution, nor would it unite the Russian working class. The entire history of the Soviet Union, including the state apparatus set up by Lenin (and Trotsky) and “perfected” by Stalin in the name of the working class and socialism, flowed from consequences of not heeding their warnings.
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Marx (and Engels) and his insights into the subjective factors of social change are just as compelling as the objective factors. Lenin’s theory and practice of revolution bear little similarity to Marx. Again a quote from the seminal working class primer, The Communist Manifesto is needed:
Finally in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the process of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of the old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.”
Under such a definition, the October Revolution of 1917 could never qualify as a proletarian, socialist revolution for it was not the ruling class that split, but the working class in Russia, and most important for the future, the international working class.
Finally, Lenin’s view of the Party represents the most telling revision of Marx. To Marx, “Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.” The role of communists to Marx and Engels is to advance the universal and long term interests of the working class in immediate struggles of the day, i.e. to provide the linkage between reform and revolution.
Under Lenin’s insistence, the Bolshevik Party split organizationally from the rest of social democracy at the very time that capital’s siren appeal to social democracy was at its greatest. The split virtually guaranteed the seduction of social democracy by sidelining the revolutionary voice from the main working class organization, handing it over to middle class forces and careerists who could be influenced by capitalist pressure.
Marx viewed the working class as the leader and maker of history, and the role of the Party to facilitate that role. Lenin (and for that matter, reformist social democracy) stood the relationship of Party to class on its head, i.e. viewed the Party as the leader (or vanguard) and the working class, the follower.
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From both the objective and subjective perspective, the Leninist adventure of 1917 was a great tragedy for both Marxism and the international working class and humanity as a whole, but it holds important lessons.
The first lesson is that capitalist contradictions need to mature and become unsolvable, save and except by the transfer of real power to the working class. No amount of political alchemy can substitute for objective processes at work.
The second lesson is that the working class needs to accumulate its own experience in the contradictions of capitalism in order to learn how to master the art of governance, and to determine the point at which the contradictions of capitalism make social revolution inevitable. This work cannot be contracted out to any political party or all-knowing leaders.
Here the Russian Revolution is again instructive. The working class of Russia did not have a wealth of experience in the class struggle. It was barely one generation removed from the peasantry. It was small numerically, and swimming in a vast political sea of unstable petty bourgeois (the peasantry), which yearned only for peace, bread and land. The Bolsheviks were able to seize power on the promise to deliver on these fundamentals.
But, delivering on these promises in practice proved problematic, if not impossible. Lenin and his colleagues had been able to convince the militant core of the working class, including most leading Bolsheviks, that their Revolution would be the spark to world revolution, and that their victory would be relatively easy, consisting of expropriating a handful of banks and other exploiters. Victory in the west, or part of the west, would guarantee the rapid development of Russia’s productive forces to overcome her backwardness.
The rosy picture painted by Lenin and Trotsky never materialized. In the first place, seizing power and building socialism meant one thing to the Bolsheviks. It meant quite another to the mass of the population. Elections to the Duma two months after the seizure of power illustrated the depth of the problem for the Bolsheviks, who enjoyed only one-quarter support of the electorate. The Duma was dissolved and the Soviets were proclaimed “a thousand times more democratic” than any bourgeois parliament. But alliances that had dissolved in the Duma also began to wither within the Soviets almost from the beginning.
The revolution did not break out in the West. In fact, Germany, on the verge of military defeat, still managed to exact a terrible price for peace from the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk, a price that cost the alliance with many Left allies of the Bolsheviks inside Russia, and strengthened German reaction against the German Left as Rosa Luxembourg had warned. Abortive uprisings in Hungary and Germany made it clear that the Soviet Revolution was on its own.
Blame for the failure of the world revolution was immediately assigned to working class “traitors” (but NOT the necessary conditions for revolution as outlined by Marx). The formation of the Communist International in March of 1919 based on the need for a guiding hand for world revolution and to root out opportunism, increasingly became an international force to defend the first “proletarian” beachhead.
The call was clear. All revolutionaries, everywhere, had to not only sever ideological ties to social democracy, but also sever organizational ties as well. Over the next fifteen years, to drive the split home even deeper, the main political fire of the Comintern was not just directed at social democrats, but especially left social democrats, such as J.S. Woodsworth ( who had been a frequent writer in the Communist press), because they were more “cunning” adversaries. In the unlikely event that revolution had ever been on the agenda in the west, the organizational split ruled it out. Increasingly, as capitalism stabilized, expanded and developed, reformism grew and revolutionary sentiment waned.
The communist tendency had to increasingly adjust and limit itself to the angriest edge of the working class. The organizational break in the working class, rather than helping the revolutionary forces, confirmed its increasing isolation.
In Russia, the situation was more desperate. Sections of the capitalists did not cut “adrift and go over to the proletariat”. The feudal and capitalist classes, inside Russia, temporarily patched up their differences to launch a disastrous civil war, aided by disaffected peasants and workers. This was not the revolutionary scenario of Marx.
Leading elements of the numerically tiny working class were lost in battles at the front of the civil war. To fill the void left by the destruction of the working class, the party (as vanguard) increasingly substituted itself for the class. In the entire history of the Soviet Union, the Party never relinquished that role. While the working class ostensibly ruled through the Soviets, these bodies were more peasant in character than worker and at any rate little more than rubber stamps. The real power was vested in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Because of the nature of the Leninist party, the real power in the CPSU was centred in the Political Bureau and the office of leader. Neither the Soviets nor the CPSU were ever ruled by the working class, much less a working class seasoned in, and understanding of, capitalist contradictions. It is little wonder that in the earliest years of the Revolution, the Workers Opposition (led by Bolsheviks) would offer biting criticism of the direction taken by Lenin.
Waves of strikes hit the young Soviet power. These were ruthlessly crushed. Factions, including the Workers Opposition, were banned. This ban, thought by some to be a temporary measure, could never be lifted. Having become the dictatorship of the working class and peasantry, then the dictatorship of the Party, it now became the dictatorship of the leadership of the party.
The most telling episode of this early period was the uprising at Kronstadt. Party leaders and historians dubbed this demonstration “counter-revolutionary” and led by agents of foreign imperialists. It is now apparent that the program of the insurgents called for new elections to the Soviets (Soviets without the interference of Bolsheviks) and a strengthening of workers power and socialism. In any but a terrible crisis situation, Kronstadt’s working class could have been accommodated within the framework of revolution. Instead it was drowned in the blood of workers not unlike the Paris Commune.
The workers, rather than making the Soviet revolution, were increasingly disaffected by it. If attempts by Gorbachev to rally the working class to “save socialism” fell on deaf ears sixty years later, it was because that class had NEVER been the leading class, and had no experience with the concept in practice. As capitalism was being restored, the Soviet working class sat on its hands; or was seduced by the nomenclatura turned capitalist.
The New Economic Policy retreat had been Lenin’s attempt to make the best of a bad situation. He died before he could see the grim possibilities: the line projected by Trotsky and later the Left Opposition, and eventually taken up by Stalin in 1928: forced collectivization and industrialization; or the continued bankruptcy of the NEP advanced by Bukharin and others.
The consolidation of the Soviet state under the leadership of Stalin was the logical result of a revolution whose time had not come. It was born in crisis. It survived in crisis. And its death ended the crisis. Attempts to de-Stalinize the revolution didn’t fail because they didn’t go deep enough. Every attempt at de-Stalinization, whether led
by Khrushchev or Gorbachev, increasingly exposed the Stalinist state for what it was-an indictment of Leninism. By the time Gorbachev became (perhaps why he became) General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the country was in its terminal crisis that neither perestroika nor glasnost could cure.
But if the October Revolution was such a great tragedy for the international working class, how must we evaluate the critical role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Hitler fascism? Surely the existence of the Soviet Union saved the world from a thousand years of Nazi slavery? Surely this heroic and historic effort justifies everything that Lenin and Stalin did to save the world for peace and progress? Surely without the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and his “pupil”, this could never have been accomplished?
Nikita Khrushchev actually argued before the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU that Stalin and the “cult of the personality” actually hindered the fight against Hitler (destroying the Red Army officer corp, believing Nazi promises, and so on). He implies that another leader would have fared better. Interesting conjecture!
It is equal conjecture to speculate on what the geopolitics of the world might have been like with a large bourgeois Russian republic in 1939, instead of a large Soviet state. It is equally unproductive to speculate as to whether or not Hitler could have actually come to power if the working class in Germany had remained organizationally (though perhaps not ideologically) united and not gone through two abortive revolutions based on Bolshevik adventurism.
History notes that the Bolsheviks seized power and, having opted for revolution in Russia, did whatever it took to defend their revolution, and after 1928, this meant building their military/industrial capacity. Primitive capital accumulation that took capitalism generations to accomplish was accomplished in less than ten years. The ugly truth of human suffering inflicted on the peasants and workers during the resulting forced collectivization and industrialization, that many progressives believed was merely imperialist propaganda, is now widely known.
Using the full power of the “perfected” Stalinist state, “enemies of the people” were liquidated, including two thirds of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. In addition, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were sent to labour camps.
Nevertheless, a high degree of primitive capital accumulation was accomplished. In the absence of debate, the people knew no alternatives. A series of spectacular show trials continued to silence dissent, Metro-Vickers, Industrial Party, Mensheviks, etc. The assassination of Leningrad leader Kirov in 1935, likely orchestrated by Stalin, threw the country into frenzy akin to the Reichstag Fire (Hitler) or 9/11. Old Bolsheviks who actually proposed alternatives were “liquidated” and Stalin finally became the ultimate, if paranoid, ruler.
The order to disband the Comintern in 1943, with little or no consultation of Communist and Workers Parties, finally confirmed that revolution in the west was not on the historical agenda, and that the Soviet Union was a trusted ally of the western capitalist countries.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was not a workers’ revolution in the Marxist sense, and could never be a model for revolutionary workers anywhere else.
Moreover, the downfall of the Soviet Union was not primarily the result of external pressure, although the arms race and Afghanistan was a major contributing factor. Nor was it the result of treachery inside the Party of Lenin as some would simplistically argue. Nor was it the logical result of Trotsky being defeated by Stalin after the death of Lenin. The Soviet Union collapsed because the superstructure (to use the Marxian term) built to camouflage the weakness of the base for revolution toppled.
As a proletarian revolution, October 1917 was stillborn.
In short, the Soviet Union collapsed because it didn’t follow the principles that Marx outlined from his materialist perspective of history. It collapsed, because Lenin and his followers, having launched a revolution, substituted pragmatism for science to make square pegs fit round historical holes.
Over the years, many independent-thinking socialists, including those who left the Communist Parties, criticized the theory and practice flowing from the Soviet Union and its international supporters. In a bi-polar world, such criticism often got lost in the bigger debate between two super powers. It also got lost because much of their criticism was divorced from working class practice. The working class needs to reexamine all of the rich material these social scientists have offered.
The tragedy of the October Revolution goes well beyond the peoples of the former Soviet Union. The peoples of the world have paid and will continue to pay for a colossal misstep of history. The working class, as the gravedigger of capitalism (if Marx is correct) paid the biggest price. Its reputation as gravedigger lies wounded, alongside the great works of Marx and Engels, tarnished by the debacle of Marxism-Leninism.
A silver lining emerges however. The powerful and distorting magnet of the Soviet Union is off the street. The international working class, including here in Canada, can now sift the evidence of capitalism all around it, and find fitting responses.
Marxists within the working class can take comfort that the fundamental laws of capitalism, and its inner contradictions, discovered by Marx, continue to operate and develop. They can study the rich lessons, both positive and negative, from the past century, and use these lessons to chart the future, a future that must belong to the working class if we as a species are to survive.
But there is much ground to make up.
Perhaps the greatest positive legacy of the Communists in the western world was to recognize the strategic necessity of organizing the unorganized working class as a precursor to fundamental social change. As a result, the modern trade union movement bears an unmistakable historical imprint. The formation of the mass unions in Canada took place in the backdrop of a struggle between two sharp ideological foes within the working class: a fiercely anti-communist right wing of the social democratic movement and the Communist Party.
The newly-formed trade union movement was a battleground in a much bigger struggle for the hearts and minds of workers. As capitalism expanded and grew, the revolutionary edge grew weaker and Communists adopted a more reformist tone (anti-monopoly alliance, left unity with the CCF and later the NDP). Competing class struggle and class compromise strategies were a sub-set of this larger battleground.
The caucuses, and other organizational forms, within the trade union movement that reflected the fight for hegemony by the contending groups, are testimony to a dispute that has passed into history. Today, power structures inside the labour movement that were built and rationalized in the battle for hearts and minds have lost their original meaning, and offend the democratic instincts of workers, and prevent them from playing their full role in their own institutions. The paternalism of both the Communists and their anti-communist adversaries at the heart of the caucus/slate system has given way to a paternalism rooted in the narrowest form of opportunism--careerism.
Where to begin?
Where to pick up threads dropped so many decades ago? Where and how to revisit Marx? Surely the debate among working class activists must go beyond replacing this or that leader or how to win this or that battle. If it is the working class that is the leading force for social change, then those who seek to advance the working class must acknowledge that the missing ingredient these many years must be put back on the agenda.
The working class, as it fights for reforms and to resist the assault of capital, must learn governance. It must aspire to be superior to capitalism in every way. A revolutionary and internationalist perspective is needed, if only to gauge day-to-day and year-by-year progress (OR NOT!). Serious theoretical work needs to be done to bring Marx up to date in conditions of rapid globalization, militarization, and eco-disaster. The decades-old paradox of finding the correct link between reform and social transformation in non-revolutionary times remains an essential necessity.
Above all, real empowerment of the working class must be back on the agenda. In this, the IWW got it right, at least in part.
While the trade unions have enormous potential power, the large mass of the organized working class is increasingly frustrated by labour’s seeming impotence in face of capital’s unyielding assault. Seemingly, labour conventions are often rhetorical and often the real decision-making appears to take place at the top levels of the unions, and behind the scenes.
A large number of workers see their unions as another form of control over their lives. If the problems facing the labour movement of hostile governments, union density and organizing are to be seriously addressed, this must change. All of the impediments to the working class asserting itself, learning and growing must be removed. It means releasing, in their hundreds of thousands, the already organized workers to defend not only themselves and others in their workplace, but also to defend and re-build the shrinking trade union base and density. Empowerment of the workers means risk-taking by leadership; it means trusting the workers to grow, to challenge, to make mistakes, to discover their own pitfalls, and get over them. Still, leadership has a powerful role to play in this empowerment.
It must not be threatened by dissent and disagreement, but encourage debate. We need leadership that is not concerned with career or scoring debating points, but is concerned for the long term health of the entire labour movement.
It means transparency and accountability of those elected to lead. Unions need to be seen as schools where workers learn how to govern themselves and society, i.e. how to replace capitalists. They never learned that in the Soviet Union; they haven’t learned that it in the paradigms of social democracy, Great Britain, Sweden, or anywhere else.
Empowerment means changing the culture, especially the culture of dissent, within our working class institutions. If we are to win, we must defeat the boss ideologically within our own ranks. We cannot do this by running from debate.
If Marx is correct, and I believe that he is, the working class, in the crucible of action and debate, will learn how to govern, and be in a position to offer all of humanity a superior, more rational, humane society than capitalism. Humanity will eventually appreciate and trust the working class as the main force on the horizon capable of delivering the human race from capitalism and the path of destruction it is currently on.
 Marx, Karl “Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy”, Selected Works of K. Marx and F. Engels, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p.503-504
 Ibid. p.117.
 Ibid. p.119
. Kollontai, Alexandra. Selected Writings, Lawrence Hill, 1977, Chapter “Crisis in the Party pp 151-200
 Gorbachev, Perestroika
 History has demonstrated that industrial action without commensurate political action also leads to defeat.