Sunday, December 17, 2006

Marx versus Lenin - What Kind of Revolution ?

Marx v Lenin.What kind of revolution?

Reformist political parties, such as the Labour Party, have failed abysmally to remove inequality or solve social problems such as slum housing, pollution, unemployment, war, etc, etc. This fact along with the increasing class conflict on the industrial field is bringing an increasing number of people round to the view that there is a need for a fundamental revolutionary change in present day society. But what is this revolutionary change to involve?

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has a basically Marxist view on the nature of revolution. This is not because we look on Marx as some sort of god but because we consider his analysis to be generally correct.

The central feature of the Marxist concept of socialist revolution is that it is seen in the context of the whole historical development of mankind. We contend that the basis of all societies is the means of producing wealth and the relations into which people enter in order to produce this wealth. Society is revolutionised by means of class struggles when the means of production come into conflict with the relations of production. Socialism is not just a ‘good idea’ which could be put into practice at any time in history. Marx attacked the views of revolutionaries such as Bakunin and the 19th century Russian insurrectionists who thought that socialist revolution was most likely in industrially backward countries.

Marxists insist that socialism is only possible after a capitalist society has been established and developed modern industry and technology. This, of course, has long since taken place and now an abundance for all is possible; but the capitalist relations of production hold back the productive forces and prevent potential abundance becoming a reality. Private property and production for profit have to be abolished for man to progress.

The only force capable of carrying out this task are the working class – all those who, owning no substantial amount of property, have to sell their mental and physical energies to an employer in order to live. Developments within capitalism lead to an increasing working class revolutionary consciousness. The class structure becomes more and more simplified and polarised into the two great opposing classes of capitalists and workers; peasants are driven off the land and into the towns to become wage labourers, small businessmen go bankrupt and are hurled into the ranks of the working class, the ‘professional classes’ are turned into white collar workers and increasingly realise this. Working conditions become more oppressive as work is intensified and, with increasing mechanisation and division of labour, made monotonous and devoid of any creative interest. Capital becomes concentrated in the hands of a small minority of the population, and even though workers’ absolute standards of living may rise, relative to the capitalists' wealth their social position declines.

In addition to these factors, workers’ class consciousness is also increased by their experiences and struggles in capitalism. First, trade unions are formed to defend and improve living standards, and then workers increasingly realise that this is not enough, and that a complete change in society is needed to solve the problems they face. Accordingly a workers political party is formed with the aim of capturing political power to establish socialism. Marx always stressed, as do we in the SPGB, that the working class have to free themselves by their own self-conscious action – they cannot be freed from above by some ‘revolutionary elite.’ Thus the workers’ political party must be democratically organised and controlled by the membership as a whole – as is the SPGB. Marx put his principles into practice in his revolutionary activity in the Communist League and the First International, insisting on their open democratic organisation.

In his early days as a revolutionary Marx thought that the only road to socialism was a violent armed insurrection. However later, when workers won the right to vote, he advocated that where it was possible the working class revolutionary party should contest elections and try and win political power by that means. If this was done there was a possibility that the revolution could be largely peaceful. Like Marx, the SPGB believes that where that means is available the revolutionary party should contest elections and, when resources allow, we do so – on a revolutionary platform of course, not on a reformist programme like the Labour Party.

Having captured political power the working class must use the state machine to dispossess the capitalists and establish a system based on the common ownership of wealth. However the bureaucratic capitalist state is not at all a suitable instrument for this task – first, therefore, the working class have to make the state organisation thoroughly democratic, with all officials being directly elected and re-callable, and being in no way privileged as compared to other workers.

Socialism will be a world-wide classless society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means for producing and distributing wealth. Thus once it has been established there will be no need for the state – the armed forces, police, judiciary, etc. – since it exists only to protect the private property of the rich minority. The government over people will be replaced by a democratic ‘administration of things’.

Socialist production will be consciously planned, aiming purely at meeting peoples’ needs. Thus there will be no buying and selling, exchange, prices, money, wages, or profits. In the first phase of communism Marx thought there would have to be some restrictions on the consumption of consumer goods – perhaps by labour-time vouchers – before industry could be developed to the extent where it would be possible to distribute goods and provide services free. With the tremendous growth in man’s productive ability since Marx’s time we consider this first phase of communism could be gone through very quickly, and free access operated soon after the establishment of socialism.

For Marxists a central feature of socialism is that work would no longer be monotonous drudgery, in which the producers control neither the labour process nor the products of their work. Instead with the ending of capitalism's extreme division of labour and the automation of unpleasant jobs, work would be a creative activity in which people would find a means of self-expression. Thus Marx advocated, as does the SPGB, a world revolution aiming at the establishment of a system based on common ownership and production for use, to be consciously carried out by the working class as a whole, democratically organised in a revolutionary socialist party.

Many people, both opponents of socialism and those who consider themselves to be socialists, think so. Modern Russia, China, Cuba, E. Germany, etc were all founded and are at present ruled by, parties calling themselves ‘Marxist-Leninist’. Many political groups operating in the West proclaim themselves to be both Marxist and Leninist – in Britain for example, the ‘Communist Party’, ‘International Socialists’, and the ‘Workers Revolutionary Party’. The SPGB contends that Lenin's views on revolution were fundamentally different from Marx’s, and that when Leninist revolutionary theory is put into practice the result is not socialism but state capitalism – as now exists in Russia, China, and all the other states that claim to be communist. An examination of Lenin’s theory of revolution will prove our point.

Very early in his political activity Lenin formulated two theories that were always to remain central to his views. Firstly, he argued that the working class by its own efforts was incapable of wanting and understanding socialism. Secondly, following on from this, Lenin held that socialist consciousness would have to be brought to the working class from outside, from a tightly organised revolutionary organisation under a strong centralised leadership. This party was to be composed of full time professional revolutionaries, drawn mainly from the bourgeois intelligentsia.

Lenin’s view that workers by their own efforts could only reach a ‘trade union consciousness’, and that socialist consciousness could only come from outside the capitalist-worker class struggle, is in complete contradiction to Marxism. Marx, as we’ve seen, always stressed that the working class had to free itself, and that socialist understanding developed in the working class as a result of workers’ experiences and struggles in capitalism. Similarly, Lenin’s idea of an exclusive, hierarchically organised revolutionary party, in which the leadership would have great power, goes completely against Marx’s belief in open democratic organisation.

The SPGB believes that the means used, and the end aimed at, are inextricably linked. If elitist authoritarian means are used then an elitist authoritarian society will be the result. If an egalitarian democratic society is aimed at, it can only be achieved by a self-conscious majority, democratically organised without any leadership which could, become a future ruling class.

It is not too well known that in all his revolutionary activity up to April 1917 Lenin was advocating, not a socialist revolution for Russia, but a bourgeois revolution which would establish a capitalist republic. Correctly applying Marx’s materialist conception of history to the Russian situation, Lenin rejected the possibility of an immediate transition to socialism because of the lack of economic development and. the insufficient degree of socialist consciousness among the workers. Since he considered that the Russian capitalists were too weak to smash Tsarism and establish capitalism themselves, Lenin advocated that the Bolsheviks should take power, establish a bourgeois republic with political democracy, and then become a revolutionary opposition within that republic, building up support for socialism.

However in April 1917 Lenin declared himself to be in favour of the viewpoint which he had previously scornfully rejected – adopting Trotsky's ‘permanent revolution’ theory he urged that the Bolsheviks prepare to seize power with the aim of immediately taking socialist measures. Again, Lenin was rejecting the Marxist position. As he had himself argued earlier, the degree of economic development and socialist consciousness needed for socialist revolution did not exist. In advocating socialist revolution for backward Russia Lenin was adopting the policy of the 19th century insurrectionists whom Marx and Engels had strongly criticised.

At the same time as he took up the permanent revolution theory Lenin introduced a distinction between Socialism and Communism. He stated that the coming revolution would establish not communism, but socialist society, a system which would persist into the foreseeable future, and in which there would still be the state, the wages system, and. production for sale . This was of course a further distortion of Marx who had always used the terms socialism and communism interchangeably. It does though perhaps show that Lenin really still recognised the validity of the Marxist argument that backward countries could not be the starting point for socialist revolution. For, while he advocated the immediate establishment of socialism, Lenin had now re-defined socialism so as to make it mean in effect a form of state capitalism – which was all that could be established in Russia at that time.

It was obvious that the Bolsheviks could only seize power by an armed insurrection and Lenin attempted to give this policy Marxist theoretical justification by claiming that Marx considered it impossible for the proletariat to come to power without smashing the state machine. In fact as we’ve seen Marx recognised that in some circumstances the proletariat would be able to peacefully capture the state machine and then smash/dismantle its oppressive and undemocratic features.

Marx sometimes referred to the political transition period between capitalism and communism, in which the democratically organised working class used political power to dispossess the capitalists, as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin in addition to differing from Marx on the length of time that he envisaged the state existing after the revolution, developed a completely different concept of the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead of the extremely democratic set-up Marx advocated, he re-defined the dictatorship of the proletariat to the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party which actually meant the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party leadership. Not long after their seizure of power the Bolsheviks started to oppress all opposition, left-wing as well as right-wing, and verbal and written opposition as well as anti-Bolshevik actions.

The SPGB in contrast, while recognising that violence would have to be used against a minority who first used violence against the socialist majority, is in favour of the freest and fullest possible expression of ideas both before and after socialist revolution. We totally oppose all censorship. Thus Lenin’s views on the revolution are basically contradictory to Marx’s theory of revolution in many respects – even though Lenin claimed to be a Marxist. How is this to be explained?

Lenin’s theory of revolution was developed in an industrially backward s basically feudal society that was ripe not for a socialist, but for a bourgeois revolution. Lenin up to 1917 had advocated that the Bolshevik Party should take power to carry through this capitalist revolution.

In 1917 the Bolsheviks did take power, and though they did so proclaiming that they were establishing socialism, they were prisoners of Russia’s backwardness and could do no more than develop capitalism, as Lenin had earlier advocated. However the Bolsheviks did not relinquish power to a traditional capitalist government. Justifying their rule on the grounds that it was the dictatorship of the proletariat the Bolsheviks have retained power ever since, and over the years their leaders have become a new ruling class, collectively controlling and thus in effect owning the means of production, and performing the same role as the private capitalists in the West. Thus historically Leninism has been an ideology used in the building up of state capitalism in backward areas of the world. Its insistence on the need for hierarchical organisation and a revolutionary elite, and its denial of the possibility of the working class itself developing mass revolutionary consciousness, stamp it as belonging to the era of bourgeois revolutions.

Lenin’s concept of revolution has no relevance for socialist revolution in modern industrially advanced capitalism – and if a Leninist party seized power the only result could be the establishment of some type of state capitalism.

It is vital that when abolishing present day exploitation we do not substitute a new form of exploitation. The only sure guarantee against this is a revolution made and . controlled by the self conscious majority of the working class.

As Marx put it "The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves."

Another article from the archives produced by comrades in the Aberdeen SPGB Group and was written in 1974 .


Tom said...

an interesting article. I enjoy debates by socialists of different backgrounds and think it's useful to investigate the ideas that people put forward. With this in mind I want to raise a few points in the article.

The first is the idea that countries without a developped capitalist system of thier own are unable to have a socialist/communist revolution. While this may be true from the posistion of orthodox Marxism it leaves open the question of that socialists in the 3rd world/neo-colonial world/less economic develloped nations (whatever term you prefer) should do. The article seems to suggest that socialists should support the creation of a "capitalist republic" in that country. While this may seem obvious it raises some problems.
Not least of all is that rise in productive forces, or growth of capitalism has a horrendous effect on the people in the country where it happens. Whether it's 19th century Britian, 20th century Latin American states, or similar, a common theme is the desolation of the peasentry and their being driven into cities where they live pitiful existences in hastily created slum dwellings as the new working class. Over time in Britian and other countries the working class created trade unions and other organisations and won limited reforms such as the NHS, social housing, etc. which improved their standard of living. But with a new developing working class the chance to win these reforms are very limited and obviously the SPGB rule out the chance of them taking power effectively.
So it would seem from the article the role of a small working class in a develloping nation/3rd world country/etc. is to sit on the side lines while the new capitalist takes power and then wait while the capitalist system is develloped to the point where the working class can take power. By it's very nature the capitalist class are going to do things on the basis of creating the largest profit so the working class (whether newly created or have been there for a little while longer) will have to endure harsh living standards.
Is this really the best that socialists can come up with towrads in develloping nations? "Peasents! You're mode of production is obsolete! Move to the cities and live in slums for a few generations until the capitalist systme has run it's course and your grand children can take power!"
The second problem is more fundamental. World economies are interlinked, especialy in the 21st Century. Develloping nations can not develop a capitalist class as Britian did over time because the conditions are not their for it to occur. The natural resources of a develloping nation, alongside the factories which create goods (such as a Nike trainer factory) are not owned by a native capitalist class. Instead they are owned and effectivel controlled by the capitalist class of another, imperialist nation. There may be a few native owners but along side these grows a much larger layer/class or managers. They do not own the factories or resources but instead manage them for the foriegn corporation. This creates problems for the idea of a native capitalist democratic revolution. The managerial layer in society who run the factories would not want to kick out the foriegn owners of the factories and resources as this would mean outting their own jobs at risk. As the products of the factories and countries resources are sold to foreign markets it makes little sense to take over a factory to prouce the same good to the same market. In otherwords, it is in the economic interests of the managerial layer not to have a capitalist democratic revolution but instead keep the status quo and keep the foreign ownership of the means of production. Along side this a working class can grow in the foreign owned factories who can develop class consiousness. Would it not make sense in this circumstance (repeated in many countries across the world in the 21st century) for the working class to take power into their own hands and ignore the managerial layer? If they have to wait for the creation of a democratic capitalist state first they could be waiting for ever, or at least as long as it takes for the working class of the imperialist power to take control in their own country. However if we accept that in this circumstance the working class can by pass the need for a native democratic capitalist stage then we are entering onto the territory of Trotsky's permanent revolution which, although the article is aimed at Lenin, seems to be rejected by the SPGB as well.

ajohnstone said...

Tom , i don't think any socialist would advocate sitting on the sidelines when the working class , even a newly created one, is engaged in the class struggle.A socialist will find himself in the midst of of the class war and endeavouring to create an effective trade union organisation . The SPGB has said , if socialism is unachievable because of the economic backwardness then socialists will fight for the necessary pre-requisites and pre-conditions for socialism socialism ...democracy independent working class political organisation...Educate Agitate and Organise , in other words . I wouldn't be as negative about the fruits of any labour movement , no matter how embryonic. After all , it is the manifestation of the human side , the flesh and blood , of determining the level of wages and living standards and exists to resist the inherent tendency of capitalism to reduce workers to basic subsistence .
Your other point applies more to some countries than to others . Asia during the 50s and 60s would have been seen as ruled by a western dependent elite but is it now ? Certainly without the support of the multi-nationals many African ruling classes would find it difficult to maintain domination. South America would be in-between .
As you later say Capitalism is an interlinked system and if the working class or an independent peasantry did manage to overcome its national rulers , it would face strangulation from other capitalist countries , if not outright destruction vis a vis the Chomsky view that even the example of an alternative cannot be permitted to survive , even if directly not a threat , because the mere idea of alternatives is far too dangerous for the status quo to allow .

We do have historic examples of isolated nations ...North Korea , Burma .Their survival has been at the cost to its population . As for the Permanent Revolution , was it not foreseeable that the the "Workers" State would degenerate ?

Forgive my vague replies , but again i'd like to refer you to another of my blogs ...I am a Stalinist at:-

Where i end up quoting Engels from the Peasant War describing what befalls a political leader achieving power when the conditions are not yet ripe . That he turns whats realisable into the aims of his party and jettisons the unrealisable programme of his original supporters yet still maintains the same revolutionary rhetoric .

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