[This is chapter 8 of "We CAN Change the World" by Dave Stratman]







Lenin assigned the dominant role in Marxist revolution to the revolutionary party. Leninism has had disastrous results in the modern history of revolution. But what does this say of Marxism itself?

Marx and Engels had declared that "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties" and that "the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself." Just two years after the publication of What Is To Be Done?, Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary leader of German Social Democracy, wrote a scathing attack on Lenin's view of the party, later published under the English title, Leninism or Marxism? A number of present-day Marxists see Leninism as a fundamental distortion of Marxism. In their view, Marxism has not failed; it simply has never been tried.

My purpose in this chapter is to show that Leninism, or Marxism-Leninism, is not a distortion of Marxism, but follows from the Marxist paradigm of history. Leninism is a consistent development of the internal logic of Marxism, adapting it for practical use. If "there has been no serious and lasting non-Leninist Marxist challenge to Leninism," it is not because there are no elements of Marxism which contradict Leninism; it is because the particular development of Marxism which Leninism represents is necessary to operationalize Marxism as a theory of revolution. The Soviet Union and other Communist societies represent not a betrayal of Marxism but its fulfillment.

Marx's Model of History and Social Change

In pointing out what was essential to his approach, Marx once commented that others had described the development of class struggle. "What I did that was new was to prove...that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat." Marx believed that he had discovered the underlying forces which drive history and social change, and that he had constructed a science describing the "laws of motion" of these forces a science describing where these forces come from, how they develop, and where they inevitably lead. As his collaborator Frederick Engels said at Marx's graveside, "Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history."

Marx believed that the study of these laws constitutes a "science of revolution": a system of thought which could examine with scientific accuracy the unfolding of history, and which could serve as a guide to the working class revolutionary movement. Marx was, Engels said, "before all else a revolutionist." Marx and Friedrich Engels were deeply involved, in thought and action, in the revolutionary workers' movement of their time. Behind all of Marx's theoretical investigation of history and economic development lay the goal of revolution.

Marx's writings comprise a vast opus. As some Marxists have pointed out, there are statements in Marx some of them minor, some of them fundamentalC which contradict the positions or the spirit of Leninism. There are also points at which Marx contradicts himself. Even on so fundamental a point as the class dynamics of capitalist society, one can find contradictory statements in Marx, who sometimes suggests that capitalist society will diverge towards two poles, with wealthy capitalists at one and an ever-expanding, ever-poorer proletariat at the other, and at other times states that "the middle class will increase in size and the working proletariat will make up a constantly diminishing proportion of the total population."

To truly understand the relation between Marx and Lenin, one must focus not on individual passages but on the fundamental structure of Marx's thought. Beneath the sometimes conflicting statements of Marx, there lies a consistent and powerful paradigm which attempts to explain the development of human history. It is in this model that lie the power and sweep of Marx's analysis. It is here also that lies the inevitable road to Leninism.

While there may be disagreements among Marxists as to what constitute the sum of fundamental elements of the Marxist paradigm of history, we can list the following as essential:

The contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production is the central contradiction in society. (By "forces of production," Marx meant the means of production factories, tools, machinery, etc., and the labor force, with its skills and other qualities. By "relations of production" he meant "the economic ownership of productive forces" for example, the bourgeoisie's ownership of the factories under capitalism.)

* History proceeds in stages, each of which is characterized by a particular level of technological development. As Marx put it in one striking passage, "The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist."

* Economic development is the driving force of history; each stage of history represents progress in man's domination of nature and the overcoming of economic scarcity.

* Scarcity, the need for economic development, led to the creation of classes in human society; class society, inequality, is the basis of economic development; the creation of a classless society is dependent on the overcoming of scarcity, that is, on the development of the productive forces of society to a point where scarcity is replaced by abundance.

* Capitalism, in spite of the horrors it has wrought, is a necessary and progressive stage in human history, because by its development of economic forces capitalism creates the essential conditions for socialism.

* Capitalism brings into being the class which is the agent of socialist revolution: the industrial proletariat; in the powerful phrase of the Communist Manifesto, "What the bourgeoisie...produces, above all, is its own gravediggers."

* Each stage of history is characterized by the dominance of one class, with one primary dominated class; thus feudal society was characterized by lords and serfs, capitalist society by capitalists and workers.

* The ideas and understanding of men reflect their social practice and relations; the dominant ideas of any age are the ideas of its dominant class.

* Revolutions occur when the relations of production pass from developing the forces of production to fettering these forces, and the forces of production break the bonds of these fetters.

* Revolutions do not occur until all the possibilities of the forces of production within the relations of production have been fulfilled.

* Capitalism will inevitably fall of its own internal contradictions: "capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation."

Marx characterized his system of thought as "historical materialism," which Engels in his Introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific described as "that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into classes, and in the struggle of these classes against one another."


Marx's View of Human Beings

Marxism contends that capitalism contradicts humanity's essence as a species. Historical materialism can be described as Marx's attempt to show that history is moving inevitably in the direction of fulfilling humankind's natureC a nature of which class society, in particular capitalist society, has deprived it. The subject of this history is humanity's "species being."

Marx discusses the dehumanizing nature of capitalism in his early writings in terms of "alienation" or "estrangement," and in his later writings in terms of the division of labor. For Marx, the working class is defined primarily not by what it does but by what is done to it. Workers, "proletarians," are those men and women who are forced by their circumstances to live by the sale of their own labor power to capital. "Estranged labor," that is, labor performed not freely but as a means of subsistence, the products of which are taken from the laborer, turns "Man's species being...into a being alien to him." Under capitalism, man is alienated from other men and alienated from himself. The effect of the division of labor on the laborer, Marx quotes Adam Smith, is that "He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become." Man can only overcome alienation by doing away with private property and creating communist society.

Marx saw human nature as an abstract ideal rather than as something present in each human. For Marx, the proletariat does not act out of any qualities of its own which exist in the real individuals who comprise it; it acts rather out of the logic of its nature as a class. According to Marx, proletarians, workers, are dehumanized by capitalism; they revolt against their dehumanization, to fulfill the role of their class in history.

While Marx clearly saw the industrial proletariat as the agent of revolution against capitalism, his view of workers as dehumanized is inconsistent with the idea of workers fighting for revolution as conscious historical subjects. Marx's model of history endows the proletariat with an historic mission at the same time as it deprives the proletariat of the human qualities which would enable it to fulfill this mission.

There is thus a contradiction in Marx between the idea of class struggle, in which the exploited are conscious historical actors, and the economic paradigm of history acting by its own laws which gives rise to that struggle. This contradiction presents itself immediately in the Communist Manifesto, which ringingly declares, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles," and then proceeds to explain the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletarians in terms of economic forces which are rendered abstract and inhuman to the extent that Marx and Engels present them "scientifically," operating independent of human will.

The capitalists themselves are compelled to follow the imperatives of the economic system. These imperatives, the need to compete, to expand, to maximize profit, lead to the capitalists' eventual destruction as a class; the "laws of motion" of capitalist development drive the society forward in history to a time when a passive working class will be driven to revolutionary action. The capitalists' pursuit of their own goals leads to an outcome fundamentally different from what the capitalists had sought.

Marx accepted the capitalist view of human motivation: "individuals seek only their particular interest," he declared (Marx's emphasis). For Marx, self-interest is fundamental to historical materialism as a science. Only self-interest is scientifically valid as a motivation; the rest is "ideology." Marx's belief that he had discovered a "science" of revolution rests on his notion that the relations of production and the economic forces which they constitute operate independently of men's will. He does not mean by this that individual thought or initiative is not possible or not a real factor in society, but that individual acts often have results contrary to their intent, and that the economic forces constituted by the sum of individual actions act according to their own laws.

Marx finds all the laws of history and economics to be finally derived from the contradiction between the self-interest of the individual and the "general good" of the community. As the individual acts to pursue his particular interest, he sets in motion forces which drive history forward. As Engels expressed it, "...it is precisely the wicked passions of man, greed and the lust for power, which, since the emergence of class antagonisms, serve as levers of historical development." Marx thought his great accomplishment was to find the eventual destruction of capitalism and the creation of a fully human society in the operation of economic forces arising from individual acts based on self-interest.

Workers as individuals in Marx's paradigm do not have any goals beyond their individual interests. They do not act in conscious pursuit of revolutionary goals, and they do not act to fulfill a vision of human life and values fundamentally opposed to the capitalist vision. They have goals larger than their particular interests only as they represent man's "species essence" seeking to fulfill itself, that is, only as abstractions.

Though it is destined to act as the agent of revolution, in Marx's paradigm the working class puts an end to human exploitation not as a conscious goal on behalf of all humanity, but as the inevitable by-product of ending its own exploitation. It accomplishes the general interest of humanity by acting in its own self-interest.


Lenin's Problem

The problem with which Lenin was confronted by Marx's ideas was essentially this: In a world driven by economic forces governed by their own laws, how do human beings consciously intervene in history to make a revolution? If the proletariat has been dehumanized, how can it act as a conscious revolutionary force? How can it become, as Marx put it, "dehumanization conscious of its dehumanization and therefore self-abolishing"? If real individuals, including workers, act only in pursuit of their own interests, who will act on behalf of humanity?

Marx's apocalyptic vision of the working class rising in response to its dehumanization proved not to be of much help from the standpoint of practical revolutionary politics. The mainstream Marxist organizations, the Social Democratic parties of Germany and elsewhere, hewed true to Marx's view of the primacy of economic conditions in human affairs. They were faithful to Marx's prescription of mass parties which do not distinguish themselves from the working class as a whole. By the late nineteenth century, these parties had been well integrated into bourgeois political and economic life. While they paid lip-service to the ideals of working class revolution, they used Marxist economic theory to keep struggle within the bounds of the capitalist economy.

Lenin's conception of the revolutionary party was his attempt to create a revolutionary force which would act on the basis of its own consciousness to fulfill a revolutionary program on behalf of all of society. He was attempting thereby to solve at one stroke the fundamental problems of revolutionary practice which the Marxist paradigm of history presented. If workers have no goals as individuals which rise beyond the capitalist motivation of self-interest, then it is not possible for workers as a class to be the source of revolutionary consciousness. If workers are dehumanized by capitalism, they cannot be the source of the restoration to humanity of its full human nature. If human consciousness is shaped by economic conditions, workers of themselves are in no position to grasp all of human history in order to transform it.

Marx's declarations to the contrary, the logic of the Marxist paradigm is that workers can only be the beasts of burden of the revolution, not its conscious creators. In his conception of the revolutionary party, Lenin was supplying to Marx's science of revolution the historical subject, the conscious creator of a fully human society, which the making of revolutionary history demanded. Historical materialism was based on the contradiction between actions to serve individual interests and effects which serve the general good. In the revolutionary party, Lenin was positing a body which would act consciously and scientifically on behalf of the proletariat and the general good.

Lenin's conception of the nature and role of the party, and of the content of political consciousness, knowledge of the "laws of capitalism" and the effects of their operation on all of society, faithfully reflected Marx's idea of "the science of revolution." Lenin's idea of socialism, fraught with such implications for workers' management and the Factory Committee Movement in Russia, was likewise faithful to a Marxism which equated the "relations of production" with "property relations." Marx and Engels had declared in the Communist Manifesto, "...the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property." The first task of the victorious proletariat, they continued, will be "to centralize all the instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class, and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible." This is precisely what the Bolsheviks did, with the slight difference that the state was in their hands, acting on behalf of the "dehumanized" proletariat. The subsequent role of the party-state was consistent with a paradigm which sees economic development as the basis of human development and inequality as the basis of economic development.

The power of Marxism to inspire and to mislead derive from the same source: its credibility as a science of history and revolution. By analyzing capitalism and demonstrating its impermanence, Marx convinced people that they could understand and transform human society in its totality. By building his science on a view of people which saw them as dehumanized by capitalism and which denied them motives other than narrow self-interest, Marx created a system of thought in which working class revolution could only be brought about by a party with larger motives, revolutionary goals for all of society, which substituted itself for the working class and acted on its behalf. Marx thus created a science of revolution against capitalism which preserved capitalism's most fundamental characteristic, its view of working people, and which guaranteed that any revolution made in his name would repeat the fundamental characteristics of capitalist society.

Lenin's theoretical achievement was to elevate human consciousness to a plane where it was capable of formulating goals other than those which, according to the Marxist paradigm, economic conditions impose, and where it could act consciously to create the conditions for the revolutionary transformation of social reality. Leninist theory enabled revolutionaries for the first time to break free from the tendency of the Marxist paradigm to trap human actors within the possibilities and movements of larger economic forces. In his concept of the revolutionary party, Lenin created a form in which human actors could assemble and assess every aspect of human experience from the point of view of consciously transforming the conditions within which human experience is created. Revolutionaries would no longer have to depend either on capitalism collapsing from its own internal contradictions, or on man's "species essence" becoming conscious of its violation by capitalism, to make revolution.

It is no mistake that, whatever their distortions of socialist revolution as Marx and others envisioned it, only Marxist-Leninist parties have succeeded in making revolutions based on Marxism. The world-wide influence of the Bolsheviks in the wake of the Russian Revolution was not simply a function of the prestige they enjoyed as the leaders of the first successful workers' revolution. It was a function of the fact that only they had discovered how to practice Marxism as a science of revolution.

For all its disastrous effects, Leninism represents an historic advance in the history of revolutionary thought, and in the ability of human beings to become the conscious makers of history. The very reason that the Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, were able to play a decisive role in the Russian Revolution, is that only Leninist doctrine showed the possibility and the means within Marxism for conscious human subjects to understand and to master the huge unfolding forces of class society in revolutionary change. Marxist-Leninist parties have succeeded in leading revolutions to the extent that they have understood the capacity of human consciousness and initiative to shape history. They have distorted the revolutions which they have led to the extent that they have misunderstood the source and content of that consciousness, and the nature of the social transformation which it makes possible.

However great Lenin's achievement, it consolidated the dehumanized view of workers fundamental to the Marxist paradigm, and gave further impetus to the tradition, already well-established in Marxism, of seeing middle-class intellectuals as the source and guiding force of revolutionary consciousness. It has led to revolutions which are technocratic and dehumanized, and has resulted finally in the widespread discrediting of the idea of revolution itself, until the Marxist paradigm of history is finally overthrown.