In Response to Mike Ely: The Elephant in the Room

The following article is a response, by Professor Toad, to an article polemicizing against the Marxist-Leninist study guide on this site, called “Marxism is Not a Layer Cake” by Mike Ely of the Kasama Project.

First, I would like to clarify one point to avoid confusion. When the article Marxism is Not a Layer Cake was first posted, it was stated that it was a comment on the official Freedom Road Socialist Organization reading list. It has since been clarified that the reading list under discussion is not an official Freedom Road Socialist Organization list, but merely a study guide produced by a person who is a member of FRSO. Similarly, I am not writing this article on behalf of Freedom Road Socialist Organization. The editor of the Marxist-Leninist blog has, of course, had an opportunity to discuss it with me, and I have listened to his input, because he is a respected comrade. I have had some input from certain other comrades as well, in the US and abroad. But this article is solely my own responsibility.

Josh Sykes has asked me to say one thing on his behalf: He would like to extend a sincere thank you to Kasama for its solidarity in connection with the banning of Josh Sykes and several others from Facebook and the closing of the Free Ricardo Palmera Group. To me, Kasama’s solidarity demonstrates that despite the important differences of principle between us, there is considerable common ground. The internet is not, of course, the real world. But within the confines of the limited importance of the internet, this struggle is important. The victories which have been won to date are meaningful, though, of course, the struggle continues.

Now, to business.

Revisionism and the Elephant

As I read this article, an image came into my mind. The image was of Mike Ely and a few others from Kasama sitting around a very sturdy table discussing the matter, perhaps over coffee or beer. On the table was a very large elephant. At one point Mike Ely referred in passing to “the so-called elephant in this room.” Otherwise the elephant was entirely ignored.

The elephant is, of course, revisionism.

By revisionism, I mean the promulgation of theories which claim to be Marxism but in fact have been stripped of their revolutionary character. Revisionism comes about because of the ideological pressure of the capitalists. Revisionism is a concept with which I am quite sure Mike Ely is very familiar. However, readers of his blog may not have a strong understanding of it.

People wishing to understand revisionism could do no better than to start with Lenin's article, Marxism and Revisionism. You can find it in the anti-revisionist section of the Marxist-Leninist Blog study guide.

Lenin explained the matter thus: In the early days of Marxism, anti-Marxist socialists were very open about their opposition to Marx and applied arguments which rejected every aspect of Marx's methodology. But as the acceptance of Marxism grew, a change took place: The enemies of Marxism increasingly expressed their opposition to Marxism in subtle and dishonest ways. Rather than rejecting Marxism, they claimed to be simply updating it, making a few minor corrections, or what have you.

One famous "updater" of Marxism was Edward Bernstein. Bernstein supposedly used the Marxist method to explain that capitalism would result eventually in the workers getting the rights they wanted without so much as the need for a trade union.

Another famous revisionist was Karl Kautsky. Kautsky was at one time one of the most highly regarded Marxist theorists. After the Russian Revolution he explained – supposedly from a Marxist perspective – why the Bolsheviks were wrong to seize power, wrong to expropriate the wealthy peasants, wrong to fight the civil war against the capitalists, and wrong to suppress capitalists.

Nikita Khrushchev was another famous revisionist. Khrushchev was the premier of the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1964. Under his leadership, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union taught that peaceful coexistence was the main task of the international communist movement. Obviously, peaceful coexistence and revolution are not compatible.

Harry Haywood, in his article the Degeneration of the CPUSA in the 1950s, talks about revisionists in the Communist Party of the United States. Those revisionists, among other things, edited out of Marxism the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the basically class nature of the state. They did so supposedly because they did not feel they could explain that concept to their neighbors.

What do all of these revisionists have in common? That they take out the particularly revolutionary aspects of Marxism, and turn Marxism into something tame and harmless which is less threateninig to the capitalists.

Revisionism is the Ideological Pushback of the Capitalists

Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and those who followed them developed a theory by which the motion of the planets was shown to obey certain natural laws. In time it was even shown that the planets themselves had a history and developed according to articulable laws.

Charles Darwin and those who followed him showed that the different types of animal had developed over time as a result of certain identifiable, material causes.

If one were to boil Marxism down to its core principles, one of the four or five last ones remaining would be this: That human ideas and human institutions develop over time according to certain real world causes. That is the simplest statement of dialectical, historical materialism as it applies to the social sciences. In particular we know that the class struggle is an enormous factor in the development of human ideas and institutions.

Marxism is the world outlook of the revolutionary proletariat. Revisionism is Marxism modified to remove its revolutionary content under pressure from the capitalists. This is a historically well-documented phenomenon. But in any case its existence is hardly surprising: It is a natural development of the class struggle.

Lenin said, “There is a well-known saying that if geometrical axioms affected human interests attempts would certainly be made to refute them.” Revisionism is precisely that: An attempt to refute perfectly correct aspects of Marxism because they affect particular human interests, specifically the interests of the capitalists.

The phenomenon of revisionism has close parallels in other sciences. The most obvious ones are in biology. There is no doubt of the fact of the evolution of the various species of life. The mechanism by which it took place is now reasonably well-known, although there is still more work to do. But an enormous number of people — by some counts more than half the U.S. population — refuse to accept evolution. Attempts are constantly being made to have other notions, such as creation science and intelligent design, taught alongside evolution in U.S. schools.

The reason for the widespread disbelief in evolution has very little to do with the way in which evolution is taught. We all know that it is fundamentally an ideological problem. People do not accept evolution not because it has been explained to them in a scholastic or religious way but because it does not fit into their religious worldviews.

Mike Ely points out quite correctly that Marxism was not well-understood in the early Soviet Union. He goes on to suggest that the reason for this failure of understanding was the manner in which it was taught. It is actually rather obvious that the general degree to which Marxism is still rejected is a result of ideology. Marxism is not widely accepted because the entrenched interests of the capitalists fight its acceptance. Teaching styles have little or nothing to do with it.

Revisionism and Tankies

It would be very useful in continuing this discussion to know exactly what elements in the works of Marx and Lenin Mike Ely particularly thinks are dated. Unfortunately, he is not direct enough in his article to tell us. But from the history of his exchanges with FRSO comrades, it appears that one particular Marxist idea with which Mike Ely disagrees is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The discussions about the dictatorship of the proletariat which Mike Ely has had with FRSO members often take the form of Mike Ely condemning what he calls “tankies.” A tankie, according to Mike Ely, favors using tanks to suppress counter-revolutions, as in the case of Tiananmen Square.

The question of whether or not to use force when necessary to suppress counterrevolutionaries is the question of whether or not there should be a dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat is precisely the Marxist doctrine which says that when the proletariat seizes power it must construct a working-class state which uses force to dismantle capitalist society, suppress counter-revolutionaries, and defend the gains of the revolution.

In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx explained the dictatorship of the proletariat thus:

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

And what exactly is meant by state? Engels explains in the Anti-Duhring:

Moving in class antagonisms, society up to now had need of the state, that is, an organization of the exploiting class at each period for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, that is, particularly for the forcible holding down of the exploited class in the conditions of oppression (slavery, villeinage or serfdom, wage-labour) given by the existing mode of production.

Later in the same paragraph we have this description of the state after proletarian revolution (the emphasis is mine):

As soon as there is no social class to be held in subjection any longer, as soon as class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the anarchy of production existing up to now are eliminated together with the collisions and excesses arising from them, there is nothing more to repress, nothing necessitating a special repressive force, a state. The first act in which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is at the same time its last independent act as a state. The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then dies away of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not “abolished”, it withers away.The dictatorship of the proletariat is the working class state which oversees the transformation of society from capitalism to communism. By state is meant a special repressive force. It withers away as repression becomes gradually unnecessary..

Lenin wrote extensively on the need to replace the bourgeois state with a proletarian state. In his book State and Revolution Lenin explained that by state he meant “special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.” There, and in other works, including the Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin explained the need for a proletarian state to replace the bourgeois state. As the bourgeois state suppressed the proletariat, so the proletarian state suppresses the bourgeoise.

The use of forceful repression is not a pleasant prospect. Naturally methods of peaceful persuasion are a preferable way to handle contradictions when they are adequate. Naturally these methods should be used first before resorting to force. The mere fact that capitalist states constitute a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie which uses far more brutal force to suppress the working class does not make the use of force by the working class state appetizing.

But as a practical matter, more or less every revolution eventually has to use force to protect itself from counter-revolution. Lenin led the Bolsheviks in fighting a civil war, ordered saboteurs shot, and closed a Menshevik newspaper which was undermining morale. Mao sent in the troops on several occasions during the Cultural Revolution. The man who planted the bomb which killed a tourist in Cuba in 1997 was sentenced to be shot by a firing squad, and although his sentence was commuted he will probably die inside a Cuban prison. During the 2002 Venezuelan coup, military officers helped to force the abdication of self-declared president Pedro Carmona by threatening to send fighter jets to bomb him if he did not abdicate. Every single reader of this post can surely add a further half-dozen examples.

Indeed the numerous incidents in which capitalists and imperialists have used force to successfully overthrow governments which could not or would not defend themselves proves that this use of force is very necessary. The histories of the so-called Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia are good examples. These examples have suprisingly close parallels in the process that brought the Shah to power in Iran.

Pro-capitalist protesters in Belarus, backed by Poland and the United States, clearly attempted a similar movement in that country in 2006. The movement was prevented from achieving its aims when the protesters were forcibly dispersed by the police. The overwhelmingly popular Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenko, appeared in a press conference with top military officials to make the declaration that there would be no Orange Revolution in Belarus. The symbolism of the military presence is perfectly clear. As a result, Belarus retained its state-dominated economic system and continued to provide for its ordinary citizens in a way that few former Soviet republics do.

Some of these examples do not refer to socialist countries. But so what? The capitalists and the imperialists use such tactics as these to overthrow governments they do not like. They will not hesitate to use them against a socialist country. Socialist countries will consequently have to resort to the use of force, however unpleasant it may be, or accept a return to capitalism.

In the case of the Tiananmen Square Incident, if we consider what happened and what the consequences were, we can clearly see that the use of force was necessary there as well.

In 1989, a large protest movement grew up against communist rule in China. This protest movement included perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, though its members were certainly a small minority of Chinese. This movement was heavily supported by the United States, Taiwan and other capitalist governments. Its goals included the defeat of the Communist Party of China, the dissolution of Chinese socialism, and the adoption of a political system based on one or another capitalist model. The Chinese communists tried to solve the matter by negotiation, and several leaders of the country spoke directly with the protesters. They tried to solve the matter by ordering the crowd to disperse. They tried to solve the problem through patience, and waited for months before acting. They tried to solve the matter through the use of the country’s minimal riot police apparatus. All these attempts failed, and the protesters resisted the police violently. Finally, the Communist Party of China took the decision to suppress this movement using the military. Some 217 people apparently died in the violence, of whom 35 were associated with the security forces.

The immediate result was a very limited amount of bloodshed. The long-term result has been a lengthy period of relative social peace and the continuation of an economic system which is largely state controlled. In concrete terms, this has meant an enormous increase in the standard of living for most Chinese. It has meant plummeting poverty rates, increasing access to education, the movement of people from shacks and cave-houses into proper houses, electrification and modernization. The alternative would possibly have saved lives in the short run and possibly not since the protesters were themselves quite violent, and as I have noted, killed a number of policemen, sometimes in very brutal ways.

But in the long run, what would have been the cost of surrender by the Chinese government at Tiananmen Square? It would have meant the collapse of the system of guaranteed prices for farmers and with it the Chinese agricultural system. It would have meant, as it did in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Eastern Europe, a gigantic economic contraction accompanied by a falling life expectancy. But in the case of China, it might well have meant ethnic break up and civil war. A civil war in China could easily cost millions of lives: The number of dead from the little known 19th century Taiping Rebellion is estimated at 20 million.

We can see here then that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a Marxist principle which is still very important and clearly correct. Revolutionary governments should certainly pursue peaceful solutions to contradictions whenever possible. And it will not do to caricature this into a notion that there can be no free speech and no tolerance for dissent under socialism. But it is ultimately true that revolutionary governments which are not prepared to use force to defend themselves cannot survive. Yet the dictatorship of the proletariat appears to be one of the elements of Marxist theory which Mike Ely would like to see edited out of the reading list, and, more to the point, edited out of Marxism.

But this editing of Marxism is not an improvement, a clarification or a modernization. It is rather a taming. It removes from Marxism one of the elements which make it a genuinely useful and revolutionary political system. To tame Marxism for the capitalists is not brilliant, subtle, or inventive: It is merely to cave to the enormous pressure from the capitalist papers, capitalist pundits, and other parts of the capitalist superstructure.

Revisionism and Reading Lists

First of all, a revolutionary organization in the United States has to take on its own shoulders the task of teaching Marxism. Marxism is rarely taught in the schools and universities of the United States. When it is taught there, what is taught is nearly always a revisionist version. And, of course, it reaches only a handful of elite students, rather than the working class as a whole.

The difficulty of this project is very considerable. For one thing, the people who must learn Marxism can rarely dedicate themselves to studying Marxism the way a chemistry student can devote themself to chemistry. Work and family responsibilities, as well as practical revolutionary work, compete for a person’s time.

In light of this, the course of study has to be as economical as possible. The books on it should be clear and accessible and as short as they can be without sacrificing important material.

Also in light of this, there is little room to include books which are incorrect. Even in the setting of formal capitalist education in a university geared toward full-time students, little time is found for this kind of book. A book condemning the use of vaccines is unlikely to be a course material in a school of public health, unless maybe the course is about dealing with anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists.

There is something to be said for the notion that more up to date books would be better. They could incorporate more modern examples, and they could indeed leave out the minor errors which occur in the old books. Where it is possible, this should certainly be done. For instance, Leontiev’s Political Economy – A Beginner’s Course is a much more accessible introduction to political economy than Capital.

But on the other hand, there are books like Engels’s Anti-Duhring. This book was written as a response to the work of a German professor called Eugen Duhring, whom no one in the modern world reads. As a result it is full of references which are of basically no interest. But it also contains quite a lot of very important and valuable material, not all of which is really covered elsewhere. It took a brilliant author several years to write. As a practical matter, it is very difficult to replace.

What is clear at least is this: That replacing the old Marxist books with new pseudo-Marxist books would be a major step backwards. Replacing books which honestly explain a theory for the abolition of capitalist society with books which bow before the capitalists and remove the most revolutionary parts of Marxism is not a solution. It is particularly not a solution to the handful of very minor errors that occur in the works of Marx.

But is this approach to Marxism dogmatic? This charge is one which is commonly applied to Marxists who refuse to repudiate certain perfectly correct Marxist points of view, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is rarely more than that. Why should Marxists turn away from correct ideas? Is a biologist dogmatic for insisting on a belief in natural selection, and not accepting that intelligent design is a view of equal validity? If one is going to take revolutionary theory so lightly, to accept true theories and false theories equally, what is the point of studying theory at all?

Is Marxism indeed a layer cake? The answer to this is not so simple. It is true that there are certain contradictions within the body of work of Marx himself. This notion has been examined very thoroughly by the excellent French philosopher Althusser, who explained how the works of the early Marx, still encumbered with idealism, are often used by revisionists to distort Marxism. There are other minor examples. But on the whole, there is very little in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin which can now fairly be considered incorrect. And, most importantly, only a tiny percentage of the work of “correcting” Marxism is devoted to a truly materialist attempt to fix errors. The overwhelming majority of work in this area is very simply people trying to revise out the revolutionary aspects of Marxism.

In light of that, Marxists should be perfectly willing to consider that there are errors in one or another work by Marx or Lenin. But they should also resist as stubbornly as necessary “corrections” of Marxism which are in reality attempts to reduce Marxism to social-democracy.

Marxists indeed must apply Marxism creatively. If we do not, it will appear dusty and stale. But the true art is in applying Marxism creatively while not falling into revisionism.

Revisionism: The Fundamental Difference

I began this article by talking about the common ground that FRSO and Kasama have. I would like to end it by talking about exactly what, in clear terms, are the differences between them.

It seems to me that the most important difference between FRSO and Kasama in this discussion is this: FRSO accepts the existence of revisionism — that is an ideological pushback by capitalists which masquerades as Marxism — and the need to fight against revisionism. Kasama does not.

This understanding of the need to fight revisionism is not unique to Freedom Road Socialist Organization. It is a major part of the theory of three separate tendencies in the international communist movement: the Maoists, the Hoxhaists, and what I’ll call the anti-revisionists, such as FRSO. Other parties which share this analysis include the Communist Party of the Philippines, the Workers Party of Belgium, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), and dozens of other important communist parties.

I sincerely hope that further discussions between Kasama and other leftists will be conducted in a friendly and principled fashion and in an atmosphere of solidarity. At a certain point, there is a risk of these sorts of discussions descending into rolling around in the mud. Once that point is reached, there is nothing left to be gained from continuing and it is best for all those involved to move on to other work.

17 responses to “In Response to Mike Ely: The Elephant in the Room

  1. Definitely must respect to this, Comrade!

    The necessity of pointing out revisionism & the necessity of opposing it are the necessities of Marxism. I hope Mike understands this someday, in regards to the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” that is. Again, thanks for this piece. Definitely a great read!

    Red Love & Salutes!

  2. Mike Ely is ridiculously hostile to socialism. I have had private conversations with him where he just rails against Cuba, for instance, a fact which he hides from his readers because he no doubt realizes being anti-Cuba isn’t down with most of the Left that isn’t insane.

    The very idea someone who used to belong to the Avakian-cult calling the Marxist-Leninist “religious” and “dogmatic” is laughable.

  3. ericribellarsi

    Okay, I’ll bite. I’m glad to see this engagement and would love to contribute my own thoughts to a process of line struggle.

    Professor Toad said:

    “At one point Mike Ely referred in passing to “the so-called elephant in this room.” Otherwise the elephant was entirely ignored. The elephant is, of course, revisionism.”


    “It seems to me that the most important difference between FRSO and Kasama in this discussion is this: FRSO accepts the existence of revisionism — that is an ideological pushback by capitalists which masquerades as Marxism — and the need to fight against revisionism. Kasama does not.”

    I’ll agree with the first quote. The elephant in the room was in fact revisionism. Although Mike Ely’s piece was mainly correct, the only problem of the piece is that it concentrated too much on form, and less on the content of the study guide. Because, in fact, despite all of the slander of revisionism that Professor Toad uses, the content of that study guide was revisionist (even if it disguises this through dogmatism).

    Mike’s critique of Marxism not being a layer cake is true, and that is worth discussing in a great detail. But the heart of the matter is that many of the layers of the cake that FRSO (Fight Back) constructs aren’t even Marxist to being with. Why is it that we are supposed to believe the Mike Ely’s dissusion of a process of “affirmation and negation” of past communist theories is revisionist, but yet, somehow the Chinese capitalist-roader Liu Shaoqi’s How to be a Good Communist isn’t?

    Is it really not true that there has been a problem in the way Marxism is approached? Do not many people approach Marxism as a religion? Why is it revisionism to criticize approaching Marxism like a religion, but somehow this bizarre repeated defense of the counter-revolutionary Deng Xiaoping regime and his Tiananmen Square massacre MUST be upheld?

    Is it not true that sometimes, certain contributions to the communist movement have turned into their opposites? Why should there not be a process of affirming and negating these works? What does it mean to read books like Ludo Martens “Another View of Stalin” which revise the history of Stalin to exist without any aspect of contradiction and portray him as infallible. Doesn’t that play into dogmato-revisionist opposition to the much more radical and thoroughly revolutionary movement that later came in China?

    On another question, Professor Toad said:

    “We can see here then that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a Marxist principle which is still very important and clearly correct. Revolutionary governments should certainly pursue peaceful solutions to contradictions whenever possible. And it will not do to caricature this into a notion that there can be no free speech and no tolerance for dissent under socialism. But it is ultimately true that revolutionary governments which are not prepared to use force to defend themselves cannot survive. Yet the dictatorship of the proletariat appears to be one of the elements of Marxist theory which Mike Ely would like to see edited out of the reading list, and, more to the point, edited out of Marxism.”

    Setting aside for a moment the method of ideological strawmen that Professor Toad is employing here regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat, it does seem that Professor Toad has a radically different understanding of that concept than I do. Why is it that most of Professor Toad’s examples of the dictatorship of the proletariat are instances of military suppression under revisionist regimes? Why don’t things like the Cultural Revolution in China, where a class of the oppressed rose up and overthrew a new emerging bourgeoisie right within the Communist Party itself (a bourgeoisie that FRSO(FB) has upheld and defended), appear in Professor Toad’s list of examples of the dictatorship of the proletariat? It seems to me there is a real distrust and even disdain for the proletariat in this understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    A quote from comrade Mao comes to mind… “left in form, right in essence.”

    • I don’t have time to go very deep into this, so I’ll limit my comments for now on the two texts you’ve singled out: Liu Shaoqi’s How To Be A Good Communist and Ludo Martens’ Another View of Stalin, along with a short comment about layer cake.

      How To Be A Good Communist: This isn’t an entirely correct or entirely incorrect book. Of course it is true that there’s a lot to disagree with in the book, including its over-emphasis of “self-cultivation” and “unconditional subordination” (which are not incorrect ideas, in themselves). Any study of the book should be a critical study. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t positive elements to the book as a basic primer as well. I believe the book should be evaluated as good, overall. Maybe there is an assumption that any article included in the study guide should be read and accepted uncritically, then stampted somehow onto current problems, not creatively, and without any concrete analysis of concrete conditions, without summation of experiences, without criticism and self-criticism and without the use of the mass line. Indeed, that would in fact be the definition of dogmatism. However, many texts in the study guide have differences with one another, so that’s not possible. To be clear, my view of Liu Shaoqi is more informed by the scholarship of Lowell Dittmer in his book, Liu Shao-ch’i and the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Politics of Mass Criticism, than by the attacks of the Red Guards or the Gang of Four, which many “Maoists” pick up dogmatically and uncritically. Dittmer’s book is outstanding, and I suggest you have a look at it if you have a chance. Chapter Seven, “‘The Capitalist Road’: Critique and Metacritique” is particularly informative here.

      Another View of Stalin: This is also an outstanding book. I would be hard pressed to criticize it, though certainly some Hoxhaists do by saying that it is unfairly critical of Stalin because it repeats much of Mao’s criticisms, with which they take issue. On the other hand, many who oppose so-called “Stalinism” don’t like it because it defends Stalin from lies and distortions and they would rather be rid of Stalin (and very much of Leninism as well). I wonder if you have actually read it, as there is an entire chapter (chapter 10) devoted to the problems that led from Stalin to Khrushchev, including a section that basically repeats the well known criticism of Stalin made by Mao. This section of the book wraps up by saying that it was by analyzing the weaknesses of Stalin in the struggle against opportunism that Mao Zedong developed his theory of the need to continue the class struggle under socialism to consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat and prevent capitalist restoration. You should read the books you are criticizing.

      This is not to say that Stalin was all wrong on this. We should seek truth from facts and acknowledge Stalin’s well known theory of the “intensification of the class struggle under socialism” and acknowledge that he had a view that Right opportunism (revisionism), in the conditions of proletarian dictatorship, seeks to “adapt…socialist construction to the tastes and requirements of the ‘Soviet’ bourgeoisie,” and that this would then mean “a strengthening of the capitalist elements in our country… weakening the proletarian dictatorshp and increasing the chances of capitalist restoration” (The Right Danger in the CPSU(B), Works Vol. 11, p.235). Stalin mounted a final assault on this “‘Soviet’ bourgeoisie” in the lead up to the 19th Congress. So the point here is rather that Mao, based on a summation of experiences both in the USSR and the PRC, refined the theory of the continuation of the class struggle under socialism into a more fully developed systematic theory. Layer cake. Yum.

      Your “quote from Mao” – “Left in form, Right in Essence” – is actually from Stalin, though certainly Mao probably said it too, and more than once. Here’s an actual quote from Mao which does better to get to the heart of things: “The revisionists, the Right opportunists, pay lip service to Marxism; they too attack ‘dogmatism’. But what they are really attacking is the quintesence of Marxism.” This is what it comes down to: the project of the Kasama Project, as best as I understand it, breaks in fundamental ways from the most basic and core principles of Marxism as always understood by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It does this under the cover of an attack on “recieved orthodoxy”, “Stalinism”, “religious thinking” or “dogmatism”.

  4. Professor Toad

    OK. You start by saying that Mike Ely was wrong not to mention revisionism. I’m glad to hear that point conceded, but I don’t think you go far enough. In fact, Mike Ely does mention revisionism, only he puts it in quotes. The quotes around it suggest that he does not actually accept that there is such a thing as revisionism. Further, he analyzes the acceptance or lack thereof of Marxism in society and the teaching of Marxism, without mentioning revisionism. Neither of those subjects can be treated properly without a discussion of revisionism. It’s not a matter of carelessly leaving out a word: It’s a matter of a detailed analysis failing to take into account one of the most important factors.

    Then you make your criticism of my essay.

    First point: Liu Shao Qi should not, in your view, be on the reading list.

    But if the only problem with the reading list is the Liu Shao Qi book, I can’t imagine it would have provoked the polemic it did. Instead, I think we might have seen something to the effect of, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe Josh Sykes tells people to read Liu Shao Qi.” The references in the original polemic to the concept that old works were superceded and newer works were better suggests very strongly that we are more concerned with Marx, Lenin and Stalin than with such a relatively recent writer as Liu.

    Mike Ely’s polemic was, as I said, vague. Nevertheless, I do not think it is so vague that you can rebuild it into an arrow aimed solely at one or two books, and those of later-day Marxists. I think it would be more honest not to try.

    Now: How do we know that the Liu Shao Qi book is revisionist, in any case? Is there a proof here that it contains serious errors? Are we approaching this in a scientific manner, examining what the book says and why that is revisionist? Indeed not: What you are doing is the rankest form of dogmatism: You are declaring it revisionist on the say so of the cultural revolutionaries. Even if you have reached the right conclusion, is this what you mean by teaching Marxism as science rather than religion? To declare that it has been received by a true prophet and assume that is enough to establish its truth?

    Also: You imply that Mike Ely accepts the dictatorship of the proletariat. I would be much more interested in hearing that from him than from you.

    You say that my examples of the dictatorship of the proletariat are suspiciously heavy in references to revisionist regimes. That is more than a little bit vague: It would be interesting to know which of those regimes you consider socialist and which you do not. But, as my piece said, it doesn’t matter: Whether the regime which defends itself in this way is socialist or whether it is not, this is the way that a state has to defend itself against capitalists and imperialists.

    You then suggest that instead I should have given the example of the cultural revolution in China. This is interesting to me: The cultural revolution in China was a popular movement, it was not, for the most part, an arm of the state. Do you understand this difference? Do you accept the need for a state apparatus to repress counterrevolutionaries — i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat — or don’t you? That the only specific example you mention is not actually a state is not reassuring to me.

    It is clear, of course, that you and I disagree about what happened in China in the 1970s. I do not think that your position, or any pro-Cultural Revolution position, is really tenable at this point. If we start from the presumption that something as major as the cultural revolution was needed and then proceed logically we can only end at the conclusion that the cultural revolution was a failure. The cultural revolution was an attempt to defeat the political line of Liu and Deng, the emphasis on economics over politics, from coming to the fore in the party. Yet, within a few years of the calling off of the cultural revolution, Deng was China’s paramount leader, and he launched the program of reform and opening up.

    But even assuming that the Chinese state in the late 1980s was some form of state-capitalist state — a concept which I also think is not tenable — the success of the Tiananmen Square protesters would nevertheless have been a disaster for China, just as it was a very dark day in Russia when the decision was taken to privatize the state owned enterprises.

    As to the subject of whether Marxism is or is not a layer cake, you, like Mike Ely, are rather vague on that topic as well. You say that Liu Shao Qi was a revisionist. Very well. Then he is not part of the cake. You seem to imply that you consider the dictatorship of the proletariat still correct, although I am not completely convinced you fully accept it. So what parts of Lenin supercede the writings of Marx? What parts of Mao supercede the writings of Lenin? In other words, the implication of the layer cake analogy is that Marx and Lenin were wrong wrong about somethings. I would like to know what, in particular, they were wrong about. If you do not tell me, you can hardly be upset when I turn to guessing.

    You end with the charge that I am left in form, right in essence. But the question of which is left and which is right is what the entire discussion is about: Calling me a rightist won’t succeed in short-circuiting it.

  5. Professor Toad, I suggest you stop playing coy since you know quite well what regimes a Maoist would find revisionist. (hint: it’s Deng)

    The Cultural Revolution brought forth the barefoot doctors, the first schools for many rural schools, the laying down of infrastructure and irrigation projects. All the successes of the 1980s have been possible because of this. Yes the GPCR had over persecution, but your and the FRSO’s position that most Chinese communists oppose it is logical fallacy. No true Scotsman, err Chinese communist, would support it.

    It really bothers me that Westerners are saying what’s been best for China when some great scholars from China have written about its good side: Mobo Gao, Minqi Li, and Dongping Han (a rural farmer and laborer for two years before receiving his free tuition). I find it strange you would so readily accept the bourgeois media’s view of the GPCR yet not accept any criticism of the handling of Tiananmen, a diverse group of student counter-revolutionaries as well as Chinese communist-minded workers.

    • I meant to say, “the first schools for many rural communes.”

    • Professor Toad

      Which regimes a Maoist would find revisionist? And you list Deng? Yes, I have no doubt that he considers Deng’s China revisionist. But he said regimes. That suggests that he considers other regimes revisionist. He hasn’t said which ones. It’s a fair question, don’t you think? Once again, the Kasama side is leaving the rest of us to play guessing games. I GUESS he means that Cuba is revisionist. But it’s only a guess. And yet you accuse me of playing coy?

      There are stories to the effect that martial arts were once taught this way: That a student would work for and pay a teacher for years and in this way, over the course of time, earn knowledge from the teacher. The teacher would dole out his knowledge drop by drop, stretching it out to make the student pay more. Whether martial arts were ever taught this way or this is only a device of Western movies I don’t know. But it certainly is no way to teach or discuss Marxism.

      I hope you understand that it doesn’t advance the conversation much to say that Maoists consider Deng’s regime revisionist. The fact that people say a certain regime is revisionist doesn’t make it so. If there is anything real in the notion of teaching Marxism as a science rather than a religion, surely it lies in examining a regime, examining a line, examining a book, and determining on the basis of a careful examination of it whether it is revisionist or not.

      Notice that we are talking here about whether or not Deng was revisionist. That is actually a separate question from whether or not China is socialist. I hope you can understand that as well.

      Stalin had this to say about the danger of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union:

      “A victory of the Right deviation in our Party would mean an enormous strengthening of the capitalist elements in our country. And what does the strengthening of the capitalist elements in our country mean? It means weakening the proletarian dictatorship and increasing the chances of the restoration of capitalism.”

      That’s from the Right Danger in the CPSU(B).

      Note what he is saying: That a victory for the right deviation COULD — not inevitably would, but could — LEAD to capitalist restoration.

      In other words, the triumph of revisionism is not the restoration of capitalism, just a step in that direction.

      What you are doing here concerning Deng is in any case a continuation of what he did, and that is hinting that it must be revisionist because certain people said it was revisionist. I find this especially odd because if I WERE inclined to take anyone’s word on any of these matters, it would be such accomplished Marxists as Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Yet these sources are apparently questionable in the view of Kasama. On the other hand latter day Maoists who have yet to accomplish much of anything are considered good authority.

      You write “It really bothers me that Westerners are saying what’s been best for China”. I don’t know whether you see the irony in that or not. You are surely saying what is best for China. Do you live in China? Yet you condemn me for defending one side in China while you defend another. There is a serious problem of consistency here. It is very reminiscent of the Kasamaist refusal to acknowledge revisionism except momentarily to club an enemy with it.

      There are many Chinese who think that the Tiananmen Square crackdown was the best thing for China. That includes certainly the Communist Party of China. So far as I know, the left in the CP China is not in any way pro-Tiananmen.

      More than that, there seem to be very few people at all in China who now defend the Tiananmen Square protesters. Although mourning for these students is an annual rite of the capitalist media, in China no one seems to care very much.

      And yet you accuse ME of following a bourgeois critique of China? I think this is very ironic also.

      You say that I accept the bourgeois media’s criticism of the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This is a load of nonsense. I do no such thing. For one thing, the bourgeois media nearly always views the GPCR as more or less an extension of Mao Tse Tung. I consider that notion not only non-Marxist but clearly not in accordance with the facts.

      I explained I think fairly clearly why I don’t think it’s possible to have an entirely positive view of the GPCR. You have not refuted that argument, only ignored it. Let me restate it: If the GPCR was necessary, it was a failure. The main purpose was to defeat the political line of Liu Shao Qi and Deng Xiao Peng, which emphasized economic development over politics. In fact, Deng Xiao Peng won out in the end — and not very long into the future either — and that line won out with him. How can you have an uncritical appraisal of a movement which failed? How can you look at the leaders of that movement and not think that in some way they must have made mistakes to have brought things to that point? Unless, of course, it was objectively impossible for revolution to triumph in the conditions of China in the 1970s.

      As to whether or not I accept criticism in the handling of Tiananmen, that is a different question from whether I think the decision to launch the crack down was or was not correct. Fairly clearly, the main reason things reached that stage was that Zhao Zhi Yang, the Chinese Gorbachev, was allowed far too much power in the party. He intended to open China to capitalist so-called democracy. Had he been purged earlier, the bloodshed could almost certainly have been avoided.

      You suggest that the crowd involved some communist-minded workers. I’m sure there must have been some. But it doesn’t matter very much: It’s not a very serious thing to say to suggest that the triumph of the Tiananmen protesters would have brought about a movement to the left in China. The Tiananmen Square protests were part and parcel of an international movement to rid the world of communist regimes. This movement was lead by Washington. Any communists caught up in that movement were badly confused. I think they would also have had to have been very naive. Had that movement triumphed, we would not have had a new Mao, but rather a Chinese Yeltsin. Would that have been a good thing? How many lives would that have cost? How many lives did Yeltsin cost in the Soviet Union? The Russian communists say it is in the millions, but in China it would have been higher.

      But let’s get back to the actual subject:

      Is it right to have a reading list of this nature? Are the works of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao still important? Or should we abandon them in favor of newer works? If we abandon them in favor of newer works, is it at all important whether or not those newer works are revisionist? In fact, is there such a thing as revisionism? What about the dictatorship of the proletariat: Should we defend socialist states which use force to suppress counter-revolutionary elements? Or perhaps do you believe it will never be necessary because the capitalists can’t possibly rally any significant number of people to their banner under socialism?

  6. Andrei Kuznetsov

    As a person who is close to both the FRSO and Kasama, I’d like to say that I’d agree with this article if it wasn’t directed at Kasama. What I mean is, I think that it is arguing a straw man when in fact Kasama has stood firmly against revisionism in the past:

    So while this is a great essay that could be used against liberal thinking, and although Mike and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, to say that he- or the Kasama Project in general- rejects the idea of revisionism is a straw man and misses the point of the debate trying to be made here.

  7. I think Eduard Bernstein might have actually referred to himself as a revisionist, although I could be mistaken. Ever since then, “revisionist” has simply been a term of derision.

    But should it be? if Marxism is truly scientific, then why would revising it necessarily be a bad thing? This would only make sense if Marxism were a set of immutable, eternal truths — certainly not something Marx ever claimed. So even adopting the word “revisionist” as an epithet is, in some way, revising Marx.

    (I’d like to say that this is an original insight of mine, but I may have heard it elsewhere, although I can’t remember where).

    To the extent that Marxism is a living, scientific doctrine, it will necessarily undergo constant revision. The question should not be whether or not someone is revising Marxism (why shouldn’t they?), but rather whether these revisions make sense, whether they fit with objective reality, etc.

    Certainly “revisions” of Marxism that strip it of its revolutionary character should be rejected. Not because they are revisions, but because they are wrong.

    I think that Mike’s tendency to diminish or even negate the importance of any twentieth-century socialist experience that happened to be on the Soviet side of the Sino-Soviet split is understandable in historical context, but unfortunate and wrong. I think it should be called out for what it is, rather than painting it with the “revisionism” brush.

    I also think that willfully ignoring the many negative aspects of the twentieth-century socialist experience — based on the misconception that to fail to ignore these shortcomings would constitute “revisionism” and would objectively serve the needs of imperialism — is perhaps an even bigger and more foolish mistake.

    None of the twentieth-century socialist revolutions was fully successful in achieving its goals (although some, like the Cuban revolution, are still works-in-progress). There were some major successes, and these should be recognized. There were also some colossal failures, and these should also be recognized and understood.

    What I value about Kasama is not Mike’s individual politics, which I often don’t agree with. What I value about Kasama is that it is a community of people who understand the practical importance of having a serious discussion about these questions.

    • It is important for us to recognize that we have some differences about this “socialism was a failure” thing. Dancing around it isn’t getting us anywhere.

      If you think there are no more socialist countries, then that argument makes some sense.

      If you think Cuba is the last socialist country left, then you need to examine very closely how it is different from, say, China, which has less foreign investment and a smaller export sector relative to its overall economy than Cuba, though both are led by their Communist Parties (which have fraternal relations with each other) and have planned economies where the majority of basic industry and finance are state owned. Of course that’s not to say there aren’t real differences between one of the largest and one of the smallest countries on the planet.

      My view, however, is that socialism is still moving foward, still as you say, “works-in-progress” in a number of countries. Where it “failed”, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it was largely, as Fidel Castro said, a suicide. Hardly a reason to throw out (or “revise”) our basic principles.

      • Who said socialism was a failure? I said that the record of socialism in the twentieth century includes aspects of both success and failure, both of which need to be taken into account in order to form an accurate view. To regard it as a complete success is idealism and metaphysics. And if socialism is to move forward in the twenty-first century, there needs to be a clear view of what happened in the twentieth century.

  8. Perhaps I misunderstood your point, Dave.

    From 1992 to 1999 the International Communist Seminar met annually to deal with just that question: what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European People’s Democracies? Hundreds of parties from the Marxist-Leninist and anti-revisionist traditions from around the world have met and exchanged views in a process of unity-struggle-unity. Much of that material is collected in the book Collapse of the Soviet Union: Causes and Lessons, published by the seminar. The material from 1997 on is available on the ICS website:

    The books Perestroika: The Complete Collapse of Revisionism by Harpal Brar and Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny are also both excellent Marxist contributions to the debate, though they certainly don’t agree on all points.

    Of course this isn’t to say that all of the work has been done, but to a considerable extent there are firm conclusions to be drawn from this summation, and there a firm basis to build on with documents like the 1999 Declaration of the International Communist Seminar.

    This wasn’t the activity of a few academics working late at night in a library, or chatting over cigars and scotch. This was an enormous collective summation process that involved hundreds of leading communists from the different M-L trends and from many different countries, from the former Soviet Union, from the socialist countries, from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, including large and small parties, including parties engaged in very sharp struggles, including people’s war. You’ll have to excuse me if I give that collective summation proccess more weight than the discussions on the Kasama blog, no matter how open and free wheeling they may be.

    So, the point then is to say that I don’t think it is neccessary to “revise” our basic principles or to throw out Marxism-Leninism. I do not believe that the most pressing issue of the day is to re-evaluate the experiences of socialism in the 20th century, and on that basis to “reconcieve” (or revise) Marxist theory. This summation has largely been done, and we have very good working hypotheses.

  9. Very good points, all, and I can understand the defense of socialist states and I am vehemently anti-Free Tibet and all other imperialist or liberal attacks on such states as the PRC and DPRK and Cuba.

    I think the GPCR failed in its aims. It was one experiment among many in revolution. Its failure does not mean it is wrong. Maybe China was screwed from the get-go due to the Sino-Soviet split, capitalist isolation, and a relatively very small amount of arable land (low biocapacity per capita)…but the revolution showed that you could address the needs of the masses in a humane manner without sacrificing everything.

    The GPCR may have had base motives from Mao in deposing his opponents in the party, but I feel that is an oversimplification. Regardless of intent, we should look at its effects, and there is no reason to dismiss a society where farmers felt more involved and worked on public irrigation projects, as opposed to fighting for spots in line to use public facilities, and a society where theft was rarer.

    Admittedly Deng helped to modernize China, but he didn’t need to break up so many collectives, especially not against the will of the people.

    When I mention Westerners assuming they know what’s best for China, it’s important to realize there has been an upsurge in MLM thought in China among the masses and working-class message boards are filled with comments re-examining those “shi nian haojie” as “shi nian hen hao” and the people who have graffitied China to reclaim that time, and the people Dongping Han interviewed are not wrong, or without a material analysis to say that their lives were qualitatively better in the GPCR.

    Much of the GCPR denunciation comes from male chauvinism. “The Gang of Four”? Mao’s wife pushed forward a program of commoners’ theater with plots reminiscent of the folk theater of the poor, with affirmative action for women.

    If the GPCR failed overall should we ignore these small successes?

    I support the right of the government to put down the Tiananmen protesters in 1989, but they don’t deserve to be painted with a broad brush.

  10. Mike Ely is justified in denouncing some of the contributors. Obviously not everything they said was bad, but by this logic the site should include some of Trotsky’s writing on fighting for revolution in Eastern Europe.

    Also, having more recent articles would be a good idea, not for revisionism, but to make revolutionary Marxism seem alive. There has been some great analyses of modern crises. Marx had no way of knowing the scale or manifestation of the ecological catastrophe that would shape society or result in terms like “environmental justice”. Not every essay these writers have is on the dictatorship of the proletariat, but if they support Marxism Leninism, we could find value in an essay explaining how Soviet production did not produce the environmental contradictions that the capitalist nations have.

  11. The most controversial trend within the Marxist-Leninist Movement is the finding fault with Comrades Lenin, Stalin and Mao and deploying of the multi-party System. The chief proponent of this are the Nepalese U.P.C.N(M) and the Kasama group of U.S.A. Com.Mike Ely initiated the Kasama Project Group,a breakaway group from the R.C.P., U.S.A . His writings slander the achievements of Com.Stalin to a considerable extent ,and even deride Com.Lenin and Com.Mao on many an occasion. The Kasama trend almost reduces Com Stalin to a non-Leninist and all Mao’s contributions achievements as an anti-thesis of Stalinism..True, Kasama project is one of the greatest ever Marxist-Leninist efforts to create a forum for debate, which has been lacking in the history of the Communist Movement .and made a historic contribution by launching outstanding debates on Maoist polemics .
    However such forces are forgetting the important contribution of Lenin on the dictatorship of the Proletariat and the revisionist character of parliamentary democracy.Infact it was Trotsky who promoted the multi-party system and the institutions of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. By promoting multi-party system the proletarian revolutionary centre of power is denied and infact a Socialist State can be toppled. Let us remember the experiences of the Communist Movement in Nazi Germany or worldwide. It was the Leninist Party that promoted the building and consolidation of Socialist Societies in Soviet Union and China. Whether the Bolshevik Revolution,the civil War, the collectivization era, the Soviet World War Victory: all these achievements were the result of the foundation of the Leninist Party. Similarly in China although Mao called for continuous Revolution under the dictatorship of the Proletariat he called for a revolt within a proletarian party Structure. The sweeping victories of the Socialist Revolution,The Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were unprecedented in history and can be attribute to Comrade Mao’s persistence with upholding the Leninist Principles of the Dicatatorship of the Proletariat. True there were opposing factions of revisionist nature like Lin Biao ,Liu Shao –Chi Etc ,but the struggle against them through mass campaigns was led by the proletarian party. It was the revolutionary trend within the proletarian party that fought the Lin Biaost forces politically and the rise of Lin Biao or Liu Shao Chi cannot be attributed to the lack of a multiparty System. True ,it was defeated by Deng Xiaoping’s rightist forces, but a multi-party Sustem may have promoted such forces much earlier. In Soviet Union Comrade Stalin violated democratic Centralism to a considerable extent and any dissent was put down .Comrade Mao, tried to correct this by initiating a broad mass Movement of the Chinese masses against the reactionary Forces, and got several members of the party to go through self-criticism and reform. It was historic that a mass Movement was led within the very Communist Party ,unlike in the Soviet Union. Mao had learnt from the Stalin era that a revolutionary Movement was required even within a socialist System.

    A most important debate is the one initiated by Com.Bob Avakian ,of the Revolutionary Communist Party,U..S.A.He feels that Socialist Society should allow for the greatest dissent and criticism ..In Stalinist Soviet Union opposition was suppressed and in Mao’s China there was unjust persecution of Intellectuals writers. Scientists and Artists who differed from the system.A strong personality cult also existed. The most important factor here is the issue of the minority over the majority.Theoretically,a Socialist Structure represents the dictatorship of the proletariat and thus,the press ,cultural organs etc represent their cause.The experiment lies whether in such a state allowing for ideas that are considered reactionary,or poetry ,music or novels which do not represent the proletarian cause,or intellectuals who are critical of the Socialist System is progressive.We must remember the huge range of ideas that persisted within the Russian Socialist Movement like Plekhanov,Trotsky,Bukarin, Zinoviev Etc In 1957 Mao initiated the hundred Flowers campaign ,inviting criticism of the rightist forces,which led to tremendous dissent. Another very good example is the debate within the Revolutionary camp worldwide on Marxism as a whole. These include the ideas of Leon Trotsky and Che Guevera,or the New Left.For the development of any ism criticism is scientifically very important and Com.Mao stated that Marxism feared no criticism..Remember How Marx analytically criticized Hegel.Infact Science developed on those lines. Max Planck by discovered that the Universe was ever expanding, which Albert Einsten,the founder of the modern theory of relativity claimed was static. Similarly Bertrand Russels’ philosophical ideas could only be compounded through severe criticism.It was only free criticism,that paved the way for the thinking of the greatest exponent of modern Western philosophy.In the last Century the New Left made some valid criticism of the working of Socialist Systems,particularly on Intellectuals and the Cuban victory and experiment promoted their point of view. Jean Paul Sartre was the most prominent of this camp. One very important sphere which the Socialist Societies neglected was psychology ,like the works of Sigmund Fred ,Carl Jung Etc.It is only by understanding bourgeois ideas or thought deeply that Socialist ideas can develop.Infact it was the allowing of free debate and dissent that developed bourgeois Democracy in England and France ,to such a great extent .(as promoted by JohnStuart Mill)

    Debate is a very important factor in the Communist Movement ,but it is needed to develop Marxism, Leninism as a Science and not to distort it. The broadest amount of debate must exist within a Socialist System, but that must be to consolidate the dictatorship of the Proletariat and not to destroy it.True forces like Kasama have created a platform for debate and healthy mutual exchange but have also been rather loose in their criticisms of Leninist Polemics. 2 crusaders in for the correct International Proletarian Revolutionary line were the late Shansmughtan of the Communist Party of Ceylon (He made a mistake in supporting the R.I.M,but was a crusader in fighting against Trotskyism and upholding the banner of Com.Stalin and Mao TseTung Thought) and the late Com.Harbhajan Singh Sohi(the best theoretician within the Movement) who refuted all those who found mistakes with Comrades,Lenin,Stalin and Mao and upheld proletarian polemics like carrying a red torchlight.

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