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.
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.