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Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

Marx and Engels "On Leninism" March 23, 2004 by RedStar2000

The works of Marx and Engels, for all of the limitations that 19th century material reality imposed, were rich in anticipations of future developments.

How rich is occasionally quite surprising.


On occasion, I'm not above a little self-flattery concerning my critique of doesn't seem to me that too many others have anticipated a lot of the things I've said about them.

But recently, my attention has been drawn (by the left-Menshevik Julius Martov) to some things that Marx and Engels had to say...both about Leninist parties and about the kinds of states they inevitably give rise to.

I know it appears "theological" to argue from "quotations"...and, as you know, I normally don't do that.

But just this once...

The Party and the Masses


If conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul.

Introduction to Karl Marx's The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 by Frederick Engels (1895) (emphasis added)

This strongly suggests a very limited role for a "communist party"...surely far less ambitious than the Leninists proposed in the 20th century or now.

If the masses "must be conscious" (of the communist goal) then the "communist party" would simply dissolve itself (more or less rapidly) into the masses in the course of the revolutionary process.

Leninists might respond that it is not sufficient for the masses to be conscious of the goal of communism; they need "instruction" on "how" to get there...instruction by Leninist "experts", of course. But "instruction" is not the same as "command" -- which is what Leninists really intend.

Nor does "instruction" require a "disciplined core" of "leaders". Anyone of normal intelligence can learn the basics of communism and "instruct" others as interest grows.

The Party and the Revolution


The Blanquists [in the Paris Commune] fared no better. Brought up in the school of conspiracy, and held together by the strict discipline which went with it, they started out from the viewpoint that a relatively small number of resolute, well-organized men would be able, at a given favorable moment, not only to seize the helm of state, but also by energetic and relentless action, to keep power until they succeeded in drawing the mass of the people into the revolution and ranging them round the small band of leaders. This conception involved, above all, the strictest dictatorship and centralization of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary government.

On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune by Frederick Engels (1891) (my emphasis)

Doesn't this parallel Lenin's outlook from October 1917 until his death? And haven't Leninists advocated this ever since...and implemented it whenever they had the opportunity?

They will force the proletariat to be "communist"...whether they like it or not. All "for their own good", of course. Think of it as ideological "toilet training".

What happens when Leninism fails?


All revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of the rule of one class by the rule of another; but all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people.

As a rule, after the first great success, the victorious minority split; one half was satisfied with what had been gained, the other wanted to go still further, and put forward new demands, which, partly at least, were also in the real or apparent interest of the great mass of the people. In isolated cases these more radical demands were actually forced through, but often only for the moment; the more moderate party would regain the upper hand, and what had been won most recently would wholly or partly be lost again; the vanquished would then cry treachery or ascribe their defeat to accident.

Introduction to Karl Marx's The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 by Frederick Engels (1895) (emphasis added)

Isn't this the constant lament of contemporary Leninists? "We were stabbed in the back" by Stalin or by Khrushchev or by Tito or by Chou en-Lai or by...whoever (the list is very long). "The revolution was betrayed!"

What really happened?


Incidentally, if the bourgeoisie is politically, that is, by its state power, “maintaining injustice in property relations”, it is not creating it. The “injustice in property relations” which is determined by the modern division of labour, the modern form of exchange, competition, concentration, etc., by no means arises from the political rule of the bourgeois class, but vice versa, the political rule of the bourgeois class arises from these modern relations of production which bourgeois economists proclaim to be necessary and eternal laws. If therefore the proletariat overthrows the political rule of the bourgeoisie, its victory will only be temporary, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in the year 1794, as long as in the course of history, in its “movement”, the material conditions have not yet been created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production and therefore also the definitive overthrow of the political rule of the bourgeoisie. The terror in France could thus by its mighty hammer-blows only serve to spirit away, as it were, the ruins of feudalism from French soil. The timidly considerate bourgeoisie would not have accomplished this task in decades. The bloody action of the people thus only prepared the way for it. In the same way, the overthrow of the absolute monarchy would be merely temporary if the economic conditions for the rule of the bourgeois class had not yet become ripe. Men build a new world for themselves...from the historical achievements of their declining world. In the course of their development they first have to produce the material conditions of a new society itself, and no exertion of mind or will can free them from this fate.

Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality 1847 The italics are Marx's; the bold is my emphasis.

This "nugget" is from a very obscure text that I had never come across before...but it makes a point that I have repeatedly raised: material conditions prevail!

The strength of "will" that the Leninists emphasize so much is futile if the material conditions for communist society are not present. Since all of the Leninist parties that actually made their own revolutions made them in semi-capitalist or pre-capitalist countries, they made them "in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself."

As we have seen.

Today, the only remaining viable Leninist parties are Leninist-Maoists...which lead or strongly influence peasant rebellions in a number of "third world" countries. What will happen if they win?

Marx just told you.
First posted at Che-Lives on March 16, 2004


Redstar, why is it okay for you to disagree with Marx on certain topics (like dialectics, or the need for a transitional state) but any deviation by Leninists from Marx is some awful sin?

I did not say that the Leninists have "sinned" for disagreeing with Marx. The question is not whether or not someone has departed from "holy Marxism", it is was Marx right about this particular question.

In fact, you obviously miss the whole point of my post: that Marx and Engels correctly anticipated the consequences of a Leninist approach to revolution.


Notice, in the last quote, how society would remain highly centralized in Marx's vision even after the state had "withered away." And notice in the next to last quote how Engels equates the seizure of power by the Party with seizure of power by the working class. What they advocated was really state-capitalism, no matter how libertarian you try to make them.

How can you have "state capitalism" without production for profit, exchange of commodities for money, wage-labor, etc.? That doesn't make any sense.

As to Engels' comment on German Social Democracy, aren't you forgetting something? That party was a mass parliamentary party...the very opposite of Lenin's vanguard of "professional experts in revolution". I'm sure that both of us, if we could travel back in time and see how it actually operated on a daily basis, would probably find it pretty bureaucratic...but that's a different kind of criticism.

No one today who is serious about the abolition of class society advocates social democracy.


Marxists treat Marx & Engels writings the way Christians treat the Bible, they "interpret" it so it says what they want it to say.

With one difference, at least on my part. Unlike the pious, I'm not simply interested in the "holy words"...I want to know what those guys said because they were right about a whole lot of stuff.

Which is not to say that they were not also wrong about many things as well. Your attitude seems to be a continuation of the feud between Marx and Bakunin; you "like" Bakunin so Marx must be "no good" and "all Marxists" are openly or secretly plotting a centralized state despotism.

Really, the breadth of your knowledge of revolutionary history is admirable (it often exceeds my own by a considerable margin) and I always find your posts instructive. But your stubborn prejudice against Marx -- against the very possibility that he might have been right about anything -- is, frankly, unworthy of an otherwise thoughtful revolutionary.


It is a very dogmatic approach to argue Marx can be quoted against Lenin, so therefore Leninism is wrong.

This mis-reading of my post is similar to the previous one. I do not think that Leninism is "wrong" "because" it differs from Marx. That would indeed be a "theological" argument and it's one that I've never made (at least consciously).

At times, I have said that Leninism is a variant of Marxism. In other places, I have suggested that Leninism is an idealist distortion of Marxism.

As I noted above and will repeat here: I thought these quotes from Marx and Engels were of interest because they correctly anticipated Leninism and its consequences.


As I have said before to redstar: Marx was wrong or incomplete on many topics.

As a general statement, I completely agree. Were they right about this?


What I know or believe I know about the situation in Russia makes me think that the Russians are fast approaching their 1789....Well, if ever Blanquism -- the fantastic idea of overturning an entire society by the action of a small group of conspirators -- had a certain raison d’être, that is certainly so now in St. Petersburg...Suppose these people imagine they can seize power, what harm does it do?...when 1789 has once been launched in such a country, 1793 will not be far away.

Yes, Engels did anticipate 1917...both February and October. But his question about "what harm can it do" suggests that he forgot what Marx had written (and I quoted) 38 years earlier. Not to mention what he himself would write six years later (which I also quoted).

It did quite a bit of harm.


Comrades, learn for yourself, avoid the anarchist/left communist fantasy island. Share your own authority with the world.

People should always learn for themselves. The working classes will determine what is "fantasy" and what is not.
First posted at Che-Lives on March 18, 2004


Marxism is inherently quasi-religious by virtue of the fact that it's named after Marx. Movements named after people are inherently quasi-religious as they view that person as a sort of prophet. Any ism named after a person should be rejected on the grounds of hero-worship.

An extraordinary sentiment...but there's no accounting for taste.

What makes "isms" religious or quasi-religious is not their names, of course, it's what they do and how they think.

Marx and Engels themselves referred to their views as "scientific socialism"...but somehow I don't think you'd like that term either.

Do you also reject Darwinism?


I prefer to think for myself, instead of following old dead people.

Is it their age or the fact that they're dead that offends you?

I am just as much in favor of people thinking for themselves as you are; but to flatly refuse instruction from all humans who have gone before us as a matter of principle strikes me as...simply foolish.


In Marx's case it's even worse because he was a racist uber-authoritarian who supported British Colonialism.

Yes, he shared many of the Euro-centric prejudices of 19th century European thought...though you exaggerate to the point of caricature. His era was also one in which it was widely thought that a centralized state was "progressive"...though you exaggerate his views again. He was most certainly not an "uber-authoritarian", either in his theory of communist society nor in his practical work in the First International (Bakunin's contentions to the contrary notwithstanding).


It doesn't matter what Marx thought; your obsession with what he thought is further evidence of your semi-religious outlook.

Oh? And what of your "anti-obsession"? There may be no "gods" in your outlook, but the "devil" (Marx) pops up all over the place.

How about a little rational discourse here. If you think that everything Marx had to say is irrelevant, fine. You can say that in a single sentence.

There are a great many others who think a great deal of what Marx had to say is very relevant indeed...and that does not make them "religious". It sometimes does...but that's not an inevitable outcome.

If you want to criticize a particular Marxist analysis or position on a question, I have no problem with that...hell, I do it myself.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that considering the totality of the work of Marx and Engels, they came up with the "best ideas" about how history fact, they have no real rivals in that regard.

Your view, on the other hand, seems to be that "things just happen"...usually on the basis of the personal virtue or villainy of the participants. There is no and cannot be any coherent theory of history.

I don't find that very useful.


Could one not say the same about Marxists? "Lenin betrayed Marx!" Perhaps you could respond that you have a material analysis of what went wrong in Russia & elsewhere...

No, I'm not saying that "Lenin betrayed Marxism" because I don't look at history through the prism of "virtue" and "villainy".

And I'm not saying that "I" have a material analysis of what went "wrong" in Russia and elsewhere; I'm saying Marx and Engels did!


Your first quote is bogus because October wasn't carried through "by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness" and I don't believe Lenin would characterize his vanguardism like that.

Here we must continue to disagree. Your view is that October was a genuine mass uprising and mine is that it was a coup carried out by "a small conscious minority".

I think Lenin would have agreed with me about this...but even if he wouldn't have, contemporary Leninists certainly do characterize themselves as conscious minorities leading victorious "revolutions" "on behalf of the masses".

Indeed they go even further (as you know!) to say that "without them" proletarian revolution is "impossible".


State & Revolution was as democratic & libertarian as anything Marx said.

Not was a "copy & paste" job from the writings of Marx and Engels. It had no connection with anything Lenin wrote before or, especially, after October...nor any connection with Lenin's actual practices after October.

The "libertarian Lenin" is a myth.


It took 70 years for the USSR to fall and it only fell because the US was stronger & was able to outcompete it.

Some Leninists have recently been raising that "explanation" as well. It's absurd on its face, of course.

From 1949 to 1976, the Leninists controlled two huge countries, rich in population and resources (not even counting eastern Europe).

The idea of American "power" causing these regimes to fail (without ever firing a shot) is ludicrous.

Marx said they would act to "clear the way for the bourgeois revolution itself".

That's what happened.


Marx never predicted that a "dictatorship of the proletariat" would result in something like Stalinism.

Actually I think there are a couple of places where he refers to the possibility of "communist revolutions in backward countries" that would result in "Prussian socialism" or "barracks communism".

And what was Stalin, anyway, but a Russian speaking "Napoleon III"? That is, a despot that laid the foundations of modern French (Russian) capitalism.


I've yet to see a solid argument defending the position that a classless society is impossible in a pre-industrial society. There's historical evidence to contradict it.

Is that why you don't like Marx? Does he interfere in some way with a personal vision of yours? Do "rural utopias" appeal to you?

If that's the case, your animosity is certainly understandable. Except for a few idle speculations late in life, Marx had no time for such nonsense.

Frankly, neither do I.


The program put forth by Marx called for things like state banks, nationalization of transportation, centralization of the means of production in the hands of the state, pay based on the amount of work performed, etc. Looks like state-capitalism to me.

Indeed, but not in the passage that you quoted earlier...which was a description of communist society and included none of those things.

If it is your wish to argue that Marx and Engels were wrong about the "transitional state" (and Bakunin was right)...hey, I agree with you.

And have said so, often!

If you want to use that error as a "peg" on which to hang your rejection of everything that Marx and Engels said...hey, I think that's really dumb.


...but even after this transitional state, society would still be highly centralized & authoritarian.

Now you're just making stuff up.


The state would "wither away" and classes would be abolished in name only. It would probably end up something like Libya, where the state officially no longer exists but in reality it most definitely does.

I have no idea what to make of this assertion. Libya???


First of all, that quote was meant to show that Engels was not adverse to a one-party state and that the equation of the rule of the party with the rule of the workers did not originate with Lenin.

Well, I suppose so...but if your "one party" is actually composed of nearly all of the working class, is internally democratic (or reasonably so), etc., then by late 19th century standards, I can see why Engels would consider this a decent approximation of "the dictatorship of the proletariat".

Engels' "one party" and Lenin's "one party" were rather different animals, don't you think?


If you read What is to Be Done? Lenin draws on ideas developed by German Social Democracy and quotes approvingly from Kautsky. In practice parties formed along Lenin's vanguardist lines, if they do not remain minor sects, become social democratic parliamentary parties under conditions of bourgeois democracy.

I agree. The illusions that Engels had about late 19th century social democracy (and bourgeois democratic institutions in general) were dispelled in least in the eyes of rational people.

As I said in my last post, no one who is serious about communism has any further interest in social democracy.


Marx himself was certainly plotting a centralized state despotism...

Good grief!


If Leninism has nothing to do with Marxism, if the problems of Leninism are not rooted in Marx, then why should such predictions be so accurate?

Because, consciously or not, the "predictions" were actually rooted in material was Leninism itself.

We've seen examples on this board. People look around them and see "the masses" are not revolutionary, even if it would be in their "objective interests" to be revolutionary.

So what to do? Do it "for them" and then, when you have power, "make them" be "revolutionary" whether they want to or not.

The "iron logic" of historical materialism seems extraordinarily difficult for people to really grasp "in their guts" (I don't except Marx and Engels themselves from that, at least on occasion).

A "conscious minority" that rules "in the name of the people" -- no matter what its intentions might be -- inevitably becomes a despotism. It might be extremely harsh or it might be relatively benign...but despotic it will definitely be.

Thus the "accuracy" of the anarchist predictions relate not to Marx or Marxism but to the rule of a "conscious minority" of any kind...even anarchist!

Despots "have their uses" in pre-capitalist societies. In the modern capitalist world, there is simply no acceptable substitute for the rule of the conscious working class.

It may yet take quite a while for that consciousness to emerge...if so, those are the breaks.

All you ever achieve by trying to "kick-start" history is an injured foot.


Your position is rather like calling yourself a "Hitlerist" and then claiming that you don't hate Jews and you don't advocate a centralized statist despotism.

Charming comparison.


Your hero worship of a racist is unworthy of an otherwise thoughtful revolutionary.

Yeah, Marx demonstrated his "racism" by his "enthusiastic support" of the Confederacy, didn't he?


The only reason you even read Marx is because of Lenin. If a different faction had come to power in 1917, Marx would be about as popular as Louis Blanc.

Well, perhaps. I think Marx's reputation grew pretty steadily after his death and, even inspite of all the despotisms that called themselves "Marxist", interest seems to be sustained and is perhaps even growing again.

But whether Marx achieved or retained his "eminence", many of his ideas would have re-emerged.

Your views to the contrary notwithstanding, many of those ideas are very good ones.


Marx built off the works of others, he was not the great genius who invented all sorts of ideas as most contemporary admirers portray him.

Everyone "builds off the works of others". He did not claim to be "a great genius who invented all sorts of ideas" and he is hardly responsible for the panegyrics of some of his "admirers".

But I would say he was certainly a genius, at least as that word is commonly used. He put together a paradigm (based on the works of others) that has stood "the test of time" better than any of its contemporaries or anything that has been developed since.

Granted that it "has problems" (the labor theory of value being outstanding). Granted that some of it was just the nonsense of his era (dialectics, race, etc.) which can be discarded. Granted that his varying notions of a "transitional state" can be attributed to the backwardness of the 19th century working class (even in the most advanced capitalist countries)...notions that are no longer relevant and will become even less so.

With all those errors, shortcomings, problems, etc., there is still no viable replacement for the Marxist paradigm.

Maybe there should be. Maybe, someday, there will be. As Newton was replaced by Einstein, maybe someday Marx will find his "Einstein". I'd be delighted if that were to happen...and so would Marx.


The same is true of Marx, who inspired some of the worst nightmares of the last century.

Yes, I've heard it said that Pol Pot read in Marx about the "abolition of the difference between the city and the countryside" and decided that the best way to achieve this worthy aim was to kill all the city-dwellers.

Marx, you bastard!


A materialist analysis of Marxism inevitably comes to the conclusion that Leninism is Marxism in power.

Once more, good grief!
First posted at Che-Lives on March 19, 2004


Lenin (hearing similar attacks) remarked that any revolutionary who isn't called a Blanquist by his enemies probably isn't worth shit.

I thought I'd heard most of Lenin's "standard quotes", but this is a new one for me.

Are you summarizing, or did he really say "isn't worth shit"?

The remainder of your criticism is methodological, of course.

And in general, as my posts on this board have demonstrated, I rarely resort to arguments from quotations precisely because they do (or at least can) become "theological". Indeed, I think an objective tally would indicate that you guys quote from Avakian far more than I have ever quoted from Marx or Engels.

I considered these particular quotations of interest precisely because they anticipated Leninism and its consequences with extraordinary accuracy.

I fully expected you to disagree with that assessment and say, in one fashion or another, that Marx and Engels were "wrong" and Lenin, Mao, and Avakian were/are "right".

We normally expect the "newer science" to be better than the "older science" -- it's the "natural" course of events.

But it is not always that way; sometimes the "old theory" makes a startling come-back because the "new theory" turns out to have insurmountable difficulties.

The "nebular hypothesis" of the origins of the solar system furnish an example. First proposed by Immanuel Kant towards the end of the 18th century, it was thought for well over a century that the solar system began as a large mass of rotating gas that gradually condensed into the sun, the planets, etc. Then, problems arose, and a new hypothesis was advanced; the solar system originated as a consequence of a near collision between the sun and another passing star. In the 1940s and 1950s, this is what astronomy students were taught as "the latest thing".

But that hypothesis ran into even more severe problems...while the nebular hypothesis benefited from new mathematical methods, the ability to model complex processes on computers, etc.

And now, the "old theory" is once more the "new theory" and is more solid than ever; gas disks surrounding new-born stars have actually been photographed and measured...and perhaps we will soon have the photographic technology to actually "catch" new planets in the process of forming.

Kant turned out to be right, after all.

Thus, my contention that Marx and Engels were right and Lenin & Co. were wrong is not really "unprecedented" in the history of's just unusual.

And it certainly should not be taken to mean that Marx and Engels were "right about everything" there are some rather glaring matters that they were quite wrong about.

But on this one, I think they "got it right".
First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 20, 2004
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