- History of a Movement
- In commenting on the history of a word something of the history of the movement has been indicated. In providing a little more of this history the geographical starting point must be Europe and, in particular, Germany. Initially, Marxism had its greatest impact in Europe dominating the European socialist movement at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. The largest and politically most successful socialist party of the time was the German SPD. The SPD was formed in 1875, and assumed a Marxist outlook in 1891. As a Marxist party it was the battleground for crucial ideological and political schisms within Marxism. Three major interpretations that emerged were the orthodox advocated by Karl Kautsky, the revisionist espoused by Eduard Bernstein, and the radical led by Rosa Luxemburg. Kautsky defended what he believed to be “pure” Marxism, true to Marx and Engels, and committed to revolution at least in theory. Sustained by a belief in the inevitability of socialism, Kautsky and his followers developed a strategy of political gradualism; they followed a path of legislative reform whilst continuing to proclaim revolutionary principles. Bernstein made the bold leap to embrace reform not just in practice but in principle too. He saw a need to update Marxism in the light of recent evidence that suggested key predictions of Marx were wrong. For example, Bernstein noted that there had not been a polarization of classes, or an increase in the misery of the workers, or a trend toward ever greater economic crises. Luxemburg took the lead in attacking Bernstein’s views as an abandonment of Marxism, and she continued to advocate revolutionary theory and practice.Of the three camps, Bernstein’s revisionism may ultimately be said to have triumphed within the SPD. The SPD moved from a fully revolutionary party in 1891 to be revolutionary in theory but reformist in practice in the early 1900s, and ultimately evolved into a thoroughgoing reformist party abandoning its Marxism altogether shortly after World War II. As a Marxist party it achieved some measure of success gaining, for example, 35 percent of the vote in 1912 and having a membership of some 983,000 in 1913. However, its successes fell short of achieving governing power.Elsewhere in Europe Marxism also made significant advances, though not until after World War II. In France the French Communist Party had a membership of over 700,000 in the late 1970s and had representatives in the government in the 1980s. In Italy membership of the Italian Communist Party was around 1.5 million in the mid-1980s and the communists have been influential at both a local and national level particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. Even in countries such as the United Kingdom, which developed a different socialist tradition largely impervious to continental ideas, a Marxist presence in the form of a variety of small parties and organizations has been maintained since the end of the 19th century. However, in terms of grasping state power the European Marxists have not achieved great success, with the dubious exceptions of the Eastern Bloc countries where the Soviet Union essentially did the grasping.At least as significant, though, has been the place of Europe as home to many of the great thinkers and innovators in the Marxist tradition. Significant contributors to Marxist thought have included Rosa Luxemburg (Poland); Eduard Bernstein, Karl Korsch, Herbert Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School (Germany); Antonio Gramsci (Italy); Georgii Lukács (Hungary); Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser (France). Marxist theorizing in Europe has not been bound by the constraints of serving the interests of those in power, for example, fulfilling a role as official state ideology as in the Soviet Union. As a result European Marxists have been the most adventurous and advanced theoretically of any of the Marxist schools of thought. European Marxists have tended to be open to non-Marxist influences, and, simultaneously, have had a significant influence on non-Marxist intellectual life. Humanist, structuralist and reformist Marxism, concepts of hegemony and relative autonomy of the superstructure, combining of Marxism with psychoanalysis, and development of Marxist theories of art, literature and aesthetics have all had their origins in European Marxism along with many other innovations in Marxist thought.While the German SPD and later European communist parties took the social democratic route, in Russia the Bolsheviks pursued the revolutionary road, and, unlike the Europeans, they did achieve political power. Marxism appeared in Russia in the 1880s, its earliest notable exponents being Georgii Plekhanov, Paul Axelrod and Vera Zasulitch. They led the Russian Social Democratic Party, which was formed in 1898, and it was this party that split into the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions, the latter led by Lenin. From the outset, Marxism in Russia had to be adapted to the unique Russian conditions, conditions very different from those found in Europe at the time. Russia’s economy was primarily agricultural and technologically backward; in class terms it possessed a vast peasantry, minuscule working class, small and politically weak middle class, and conservative aristocracy; in political terms Russia was an incompetently ruled authoritarian Tsardom.The Russian Marxists, aware of the significant differences between the Europe in which Marxism was formulated and the Russia of their time, modified Marx’s ideas. In particular, Lenin introduced crucial innovations to Marxism while claiming to be true to Marx. Where Marx and European Marxists saw peasants as essentially reactionary, Lenin ascribed revolutionary potential to them. While the German Marxists all viewed a mass workers’ party as essential, Lenin advocated and created a small, professional revolutionary party to lead the masses, and insisted on the enforcement of discipline and obedience via the principle of “democratic centralism.” He also laid stress on the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, a temporary, interim stage of socialism in which a workers’ state was necessary before Engels’ famous “withering away of the state” took place. The doctrines of the vanguard party and democratic centralism contributed to turning the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the party.The great success of the Bolsheviks under Lenin occurred in 1917 when they seized power as the already rotten Russian state and fragile economy reeled under the impact of World War I. Surviving civil war and the intervention of foreign troops, the fledgling Marxist state grew stronger politically and economically. However, the death of Lenin in 1924 saw political infighting increase as rivals with conflicting views sought to gain the ascendancy. Most famously Leon Trotsky and his theory of permanent revolution were defeated by Josef Stalin and his doctrine of Socialism in One Country. Stalin ruled Russia as its supreme leader from 1929 until his death in 1953.In many respects the greatest spread of Marxism, or at least of one form of Marxism, was orchestrated by Stalin. Just as he controlled the Soviet Communist Party and through it the Soviet Union, so he controlled the Communist International and through it most of the Marxist organizations around the world. Marxists from numerous countries came to the Soviet Union for training and education, and Marxist organizations outside of the Soviet Union could rely on support from Moscow provided that Moscow could rely on loyalty from them. It was Stalin who oversaw the takeover of Eastern Europe after World War II, introducing Marxist regimes to a cluster of countries virtually at a stroke. While the Soviet Union made remarkable progress economically and militarily under Stalin, its people also underwent terrible deprivations and experienced the most brutal repression. Stalinism will be remembered primarily as a form of totalitarian dictatorship some way removed from the workers’ paradise envisaged by Marx. While the distance between Marx’s aims and the realities of Stalinism are evident, it remains a matter of debate as to the link between Marxism and Stalinism. The success of the 1917 Revolution in Russia inspired the growth of Marxism elsewhere. In Asia outside of the Russian empire, the first growth of Marxism occurred in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia) in 1920 when the Indonesian Communist Party was founded by a Dutchman called Sneevliet. The same Dutchman in 1921 helped establish the Chinese Communist Party along with representatives of the Communist International from Russia. Initially close to and supported by the Soviet Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party grew apart from the Soviet Union and a gulf opened up between them in the 1960s. Leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976, and the single most important figure in Chinese Marxism, Mao Zedong gave his name to yet another neologism in the Marxist lexicon, Maoism.Mao and the Chinese Marxists, like the Russian Marxists before them, had to adapt Marxism to the conditions of their own country. For example, the economic determinism that characterized much of European Marxism had to be replaced with a voluntarism that emphasized political will and consciousness over economic development as prerequisites for revolution. Mao stretched the Marxist theory of class to encompass the social stratification found in China, a class structure very different from that of Europe. Mao also introduced the strategy of guerrilla warfare as part of the revolutionary struggle. The “sinification” of Marxism introduced a flexibility and an emphasis on the peasantry and the countryside that suited not just the Chinese, but other developing countries. The success of communism in China, and in particular the flexible ideology and tactics of Mao, helped the spread of Marxism in the Third World. Furthermore, the Chinese communists supported communist organizations around the world and sometimes directly intervened in other countries to aid like-minded communists, for example in Vietnam.One significant factor in the spread of Marxism in the developing world was its anti-imperialist stance. From Lenin’s theory of imperialism onwards Marxists saw a link between capitalism and imperialism and supported struggles against colonial powers as struggles against capitalism. This encouraged the Soviet and Chinese regimes to support national liberation movements, notably in southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Third World countries were also drawn to Soviet and Chinese Marxism because of the models for rapid industrialization and modernization that they offered. By 1950 the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China constituted two powerful Marxist states that could provide support and aid to Marxist parties and national liberation movements throughout the Third World. Perhaps the most notable beneficiary of such support has been Cuba, which up until the collapse of the Soviet Union received sustained and substantial aid.It is noteworthy that the greatest successes of Marxism in terms of achieving power have largely occurred in the developing world: Afghanistan, Angola, Benin, China, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Guinea- Bissau and Cape Verde, Kampuchea, Laos, Mongolia, Mozambique, North Korea, Russia, Somalia, Vietnam, and Yemen. None of these countries could be counted among the most advanced economically at the time they turned to communism.As Marxist ideas have spread to different parts of the globe, so they have changed. “Russified” in Russia and “Sinified” in China, Marxism has been adapted elsewhere too. For example, Che Guevara, who was active in Cuba and Bolivia, followed on from the Chinese in stressing the importance of creating the conditions necessary for revolution, rather than waiting for the correct objective economic and social conditions to emerge. He rejected any idea of historical stages through which a country must pass before creating communism. He also elaborated a theory of guerrilla warfare suited to developing countries. Amilcar Cabral, the noted African Marxist, emphasized the importance of local conditions in developing revolutionary theory. Frantz Fanon, active in the Algerian liberation movement in the 1960s, incorporated a racial and psychological dimension into Marxist theory as he applied it to Africa. The history of Marxism as a movement and as a theory is a history of diversity and change.THEORY AND PRACTICEAs a movement then, Marxism has spread to virtually every part of the globe, and as an ideology it has spread to a vast and diverse array of disciplines and subjects. In terms of political influence the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China must count as the most significant areas of impact. It is of course debatable how truly Marxist, or to be more precise, how true to Marx’s ideas either of these countries has been, and, as has been suggested, Marx’s theory of revolution did not point to either of these places as likely candidates for Marxist revolutions. Nevertheless, both claimed to act on the basis of Marxist principles, and for many the failings of these countries suggest failings in Marxism itself.While the practice of these and other countries claiming to be Marxist would seem to be at odds with much of what Marx wrote, for example about freedom and the future stateless, classless communist society, it would be facile to dismiss any link between Marxism in theory and communist practice. For example, there is a case to be made for suggesting that Marx and subsequent Marxists neglected the individual, individual rights, constitutional checks and balances to power, and democratic institutions and procedures. This stemmed, perhaps, partly through too optimistic a view of human nature and a failure to observe Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The omission in the theory suggests a reason for the totalitarian tendencies displayed in communist practice.For Marxists the “unity of theory and practice” is a tenet of faith, so the practice of avowedly communist countries has greatly exercised Marxist writers seeking to understand, explain and assess “Marxism in action.” Some commentators, including some Marxists, see the Soviet Union and communist China as distortions of true Marxism, using terms such as degenerate workers’ state, deformed workers’ state, or even state capitalism to describe them. Trotsky and his followers have propounded such a viewpoint laying much of the blame for the corruption of Marxism at the doorstep of Stalin. Others have seen Lenin as the culprit; even during his lifetime Lenin had his critics within the Marxist movement, for example the Mensheviks who saw him as ignoring the laws of history, and Rosa Luxemburg who criticized him for putting party above the people. The distortions and, at times, horrors of communism in practice have led other Marxists to pursue an “authentic Marxism” looking to recover the “true Marx” with the corruptions of later Marxism scraped away. For example, Cyril Smith, a committed Marxist, writes in his Marx at the Millennium that he wishes “to establish what were Marx’s real ideas” in contrast to the debased interpretations of subsequent Marxisms. 2It is doubtful that a project to uncover a single authentic Marxism could ever be definitively achieved. The history of Marxism has thrown up an irreducible plurality of Marxisms, all linked in some way to the writings and ideas of Marx, but no single interpretation being the one true Marxism. Marxism in practice has led to changes in Marxist theory, and any living ideology must change itself in response to changing conditions and the lessons of practice.THE DEATH OF MARXISM?In 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached, marking the end of the Marxist regime in East Germany. In 1991 the Marxist regime in the Soviet Union collapsed, its communist empire in Europe already fallen. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama published a book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that Marxism was defeated, and capitalism had triumphed over its ideological adversary. Fukuyama described Marxist doctrine as “discredited” and “totally exhausted.”3 In 1999 Andrew Gamble, who is not entirely unsympathetic to Marxism, nevertheless began a book on it with a chapter titled “Why Bother with Marxism?” in which he wrote, “Marxism is widely perceived to be in crisis, and many believe the crisis is terminal. Marxism it is said had had a long run and now its energies are spent and its usefulness is long past. It is time to return Marx to the nineteenth century where he belongs.”4 In other words, for many the final destruction of the Soviet Union marked the death of Marxism.This would seem to imply that a book such as A Historical Dictionary of Marxism is purely an exercise in history, albeit a useful and interesting exercise. The death of Marxism thesis suggests that the story of Marxism has come to an end and that any lingering doubts about the futility and falsity of Marxism have now been dispelled. Marxist theory and practice have been discredited. Furthermore, Marx died well over 100 years ago, and he wrote the Communist Manifesto over 150 years ago. The world of Marx was very different from the world of today, politically, economically and socially, so there can be little of interest in Marxism now. The Communist Manifesto must be seen for what it is, simply a historical document, and any truth there may have been in Marx’s ideas no longer applies in the vastly changed world of today. Proponents of the death of Marxism argument overlook several points. First, Marxist governments continue to exist, most notably, at the time of writing, China and Cuba, and Marxist parties and Marxistinfluenced organizations continue to be active around the world, the Zapatistas in Mexico to name but one significant example. Secondly, in many former communist countries there is a growing nostalgia for the days of communist rule when there was stability, security, full employment, welfare and a strong central authority. This is manifesting itself in increased support for the old communist parties such as the Party of Democratic Socialism (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus—PDS), the successor to the East German Communist Party (SED) that ruled in the German Democratic Republic.5 Thirdly, Marxism is a living tradition that has changed and spread in different directions, so that while 19th-century Marxism may be dated, just as 19th-century liberalism is, 21st-century Marxism is not so easily dismissed as irrelevant. Fourthly, the influence of Marxist ideas in a vast range of fields should not be underestimated. Geography, anthropology, literature, the arts, criminology, and ecology are just some of the less obvious fields in which Marxism has made, and continues to make, an impact. In other words, both politically and ideologically Marxism has not yet breathed its last. Finally, there is the issue of the discrediting of Marxism by the practice of communist regimes. That is to say, those pronouncing the death of Marxism argue that the failings and fall of the Soviet Union show the falsity of Marxism. At the very least, proponents of this view need to show that Marxist theory entails the practice seen in the Soviet Union, and also that the failings and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union were due to its Marxism and not to other factors. However, it is fair to say that contemporary Marxists face a greater challenge than that faced by their predecessors. For now they are confronted with either defending or explaining the deeds done in the name of Marxism: the Great Terror of Stalin’s purges, the brutalities of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. Now the absence of a successful and sustained Marxist revolution and the continuing presence of capitalism must be explained.So the announcement of the death of Marxism may be premature. History may not have vindicated Marx, but nor has it clearly disproved him yet either. The point being made here is not that Marx was right and that Marxism is true, but that Marxism remains significant politically and as a source of ideas. Marxism, as has been noted, has its own challenges to meet, but it also still represents one of the great challenges to capitalism and to liberal ideas and it will continue to do so for some time to come.—David WalkerNOTES1. This account of the development of Marxism and related words draws on the excellent “Marx and Marxism” by George Haupt in The History of Marxism, vol. 1, edited by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1982.2. Marx at the Millenium by Cyril Smith, London: Pluto Press, 1996.3. The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, London: Penguin, 1992, p. 296.4. Marxism and Social Science, edited by Andrew Gamble, David Marsh, and Tony Tant, London: Macmillan, 1999, p. 1.5. The PDS secured close to 9 percent of the vote in the 2005 general election, including over 25 percent of East German votes cast. Electoral support for communism is also to be found in other former communist countries. To give just a few examples: in the Czech Republic the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia polled 18.5 percent of the vote in the 2002 parliamentary elections; in Russia the Communist Party of the Russian Federation polled 12.6 percent in Duma elections in 2003; in Moldova the Communists’ Party of the Rexxxvi public of Moldova holds power, having polled 46 percent in 2005. In East Germany the growing nostalgia for life under the former communist system, particularly prevalent among the over-sixties, is called Ostalgie, and opinion polls point to significant nostalgia for the “good old days” elsewhere also with a poll of over 2000 Russians in 2004 by the reputable Yuri Levada Analytical Center showing that 67 percent “regretted the fall of the Soviet Union.” In another survey 71 percent of Russians “strongly” or “somewhat” approved of the former communist regime with 41 percent responding either “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” to the statement “We should return to communist rule” (New Russia Barometer XIV: Evidence of Dissatisfaction Studies in Public Policy No. 402, ed. Prof. Richard Rose, Glasgow, University of Strathclyde, 2005).
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.
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