Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.
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12 thoughts on “Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

  1. Seems like you’ve built in more than a little derisive prejudgement in your wording of Possibility #1, as if that line of interpretation were more arbitrary or “voluntarist” than the others (i.e. “take your pick”). To me, the other possibilities of interpretation are at least as arbitrary, if not more so, with those who possess state power appealing to some stagist model of history so as to defer realization of communist ideals to some point in a distant future.

    1. Thanks, I am trying to present different modes of interpretation from different contexts. Obviously, I am not enamoured with betrayal or ‘Fall’ narratives. Apart from the need to debunk any socialism in power, it also betrays the deep influence of Christian motifs in European thought.

  2. I think it would be pretty astonishing if there were no betrayals in the long history of the international communist movement, but those individuals or countries who betray can get back on track.

    I don’t think the Soviet Union was blameless, but I tend to side with them in the Sino-Soviet split that persisted through the 60’s and 70’s. I think China’s rapprochement and collaboration with the American imperialists during this time was an awful betrayal. I think the Chinese got a wake-up call in 1989 when their American partners pulled their Tiananmen Square stunt. Once the Americans used the aid of the Chinese to help bring down the USSR and eastern Europe, they turned on their Chinese collaborators. I thought China learned its lesson, but now I see signs that China is willing to betray their socialist North Korean ally.

    Part of the problem I have is that, in the US at least, China is perceived as being a capitalist country. For years I have told typical right-wing Americans that billionaires aren’t socialist and can’t be socialist. You see, there is a pervasive far right conspiracy theory here where they have flipped the script and turned reality upside-down by characterizing billionaire “globalists” as part of a “New World Order” who conspire to use the United Nations, the EU and globalist policies to create a one-world government that is basically described or understood as communist. Millions of Americans, and Western Europeans, really believe that Obama and Hillary are Marxist revolutionaries and that Trump has now come to save the day. It’s insanity, but it hurts when I try to make a case for China being socialist, and lo and behold it has billionaires, engages in capitalism and votes for sanctions on the DPRK in the UN security council.

    I understand that China has to engage in realpolitik and open up its economy to further its development, but if it wants to be perceived as socialist, it also has to be concerned with its international image before millions of Western leftists who perceive (incorrectly, I suppose) that it is entirely capitalist. This breeds lots of cynicism and hopelessness. It would be nice if China could assume the mantle of leadership of the international socialist movement.

    As for me, I’ve been duped before. I’m not interested in getting duped again. I don’t want to be one of those “Western Marxists,” but it seems like there is lots of room for improvement in China.

    1. Agreed. I was talking with Chinese socialists and all of the problems there. But we agreed that it was far better to have had a socialist revolution and all of the problems associated with constructing socialism than none at all.

  3. There’s also the point that according to Althusser, the young Marx “betrayed’ the older, wiser Marx. Or rather, later marxists betrayed the elder by having recourse to the younger (i.e., the Hegelian Marx).

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