Non-political elections

In Engels’s key work, ‘Dell’ Autorità’, which was originally published in Italian in the midst of the struggle with the Anarchists (who were popular in Italy) and their ‘anti-authoritarian’ push. Engels writes: ‘All socialists are agreed that the political state [Stato politico], and with it political authority [l’autorità politica], will disappear [scompariranno] as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions [funzioni pubbliche] will lose their political character [carattere politico]’. But what, exactly, does political character mean?

The answer is simple enough: by political character both Engels and Marx mean the reality of class struggle and its manifestation in the state. Thus, the manifesto observes, immediately after mentioning the political character of public Gewalt absorbed into the state: ‘Political Gewalt, properly so called, is merely the organised Gewalt of one class for oppressing another’. I do not need to reiterate the details of Engels’s work on the state as a separated public power here (emphasis on separated), except to point out that if public Gewalt – with the senses of power, force and even violence – loses its political character, it ceases to be a manifestation and instrument of class struggle and thus coercion. Clearly, public Gewalt is not necessarily separated from society, for it may take other forms.

The formulation may be relatively simple, but the implications are far-reaching. On this matter at least, Marx offers a couple of hints, of which the second is the most interesting.

In his cryptic notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, Marx refers to what may be called non-political elections. How is this possible? Are not elections inherently political? This is so for those who have been indoctrinated by the Western liberal tradition, in which elections are the manifestation of regulated class conflict within the bourgeois state. So let us see what Marx suggests, all too briefly. He begins by pointing out that the character of an election depends in its ‘economic foundation [ökonomischen Grundlage]’, on the ‘economic interrelations [ökonomischen Zusammenhängen] of the voters’. That is, if economic relations are antagonistic, and if classes have formed and are engaged in class struggle, then elections will be ‘political’. What if this situation does not apply and economic relations are not antagonistic? Then ‘the functions have ceased to be political [die Funktionen aufgehört haben, politisch zu sein]’.

Marx then specifies the sense in which he uses politisch, or, rather, its absence. First, there are ‘no ruling functions [keine Regierungsfunktion]’. I have stressed the sense of rule and reign that are part of the semantic field of Regierung, since ‘government’ or even ‘administration’ (also senses of the word) are too weak and do not capture Marx’s sense. This meaning appears in the second point: ‘the distribution of general functions has become a routine matter [Geschäftssache] which entails no domination [keine Herrschaft]’. By this point, Marx is not speaking about the period of the proletarian dictatorship, but afterwards, when antagonistic contradictions have ceased. Now we come to third point, where he observes: ‘elections have nothing [hat nichts] of today’s political character [politischen Charakter]’. If political character means what pertains to antagonistic economic relations and class conflict, characteristic of the bourgeois state and its electoral system, then without that context, elections will lose, will have nothing of the political character of today – not only in Marx’s context where the bourgeois state was gradually being implemented across Western Europe, but also in those parts of the world today that are influenced by this tradition, either in Europe itself or in some of its former colonies.

Do non-political elections already take place today? Let me offer an example drawn from elections in China. Elections are held more regularly than in bourgeois states, both direct and indirect. Thus,  elections internal to the Communist Party are held at all local branches. In a village, in a small company, in a school – wherever there are three or more party members a branch is formed and elections are held for local posts, especially the local branch secretary. Why three? Only then can you have elections to such a post. In society as a whole, elections are held for the local National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). These elections are held annually, are direct and include candidates from all nine political parties.

At higher levels – from the provincial to the national – elections are indirect. That is, people are elected from the lower and local bodies, and are subject to assessment as to whether they have the appropriate skills and experience. Thus, the national NPC and CPPCC require significant electoral processes each year. Thousands of representatives from across the country, from all classes, minority nationalities, religious groups and other sectors of society, are elected to the two bodies. I cannot go into more detail here, but the question remains: do these elections have a political character? No, for the system is known as a ‘multi-party cooperation and political consultative system [duodang hezuo he zhengzhi xieshang zhidu]’, which designates that the system of elections that is not based on class conflict but on non-antagonistic relations among the different groups and their representatives.

Thus, in many respects elections have already lost their political character in China.

Introduction: Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance

With some intense work over the last few weeks, this book will be complete by the weekend. It is called Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance and will be published initially in Chinese as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Engels’s birth, which happens to be next year, 2020.

What follows is the introduction to the book.

This work began as a larger project on socialist governance. The study of Engels was to be its second chapter, after Marx and before Lenin. Stalin, Mao and others. However, as I began to write the chapter it became apparent that Engels has far more to offer than Marx’s relatively cryptic formulations. As I read further, particularly in relatively unstudied material of the 1880s, I began to realise it was Engels, rather than Marx, who provided the main groundwork for a historical and dialectical materialist theory of the state. More than the state, which he defines as a separated public power, for he also provides the basic philosophical principles for what may be called socialist governance. The result was a book in itself, focused on Engels. Indeed, so important is Engels on this matter that I have reversed the usual order of referring to ‘Marx and Engels’ to speak of ‘Engels and Marx’ when it comes to co-authored material. This is not to disparage Marx’s contribution, for it remains very important (Boer 2019) and much of the material that came from Engels’s pen arose from discussion between them over such matters. But when it comes to socialist governance, Marx left us with an unresolved contradiction, between the Paris commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He made some tentative moves to resolve the contradiction, but his energy was on other projects rather than the state as such. It fell to Engels to develop such a theory, especially when Marx’s energy had waned and after he died in 1883. This book is an effort to explicate this theory in light of all the relevant material.

Rather than leaving the question begging to the very end, let me state here what Engels proposes concerning socialist governance. It entails that public power (Gewalt – a term we will meet frequently) loses its political character and focuses on the administration of the stuff of life and conduct of the economy for the good of the whole community (Gemeinwesen). This means that such a public power stands in the midst of society, rather than separate from and opposed to it. Far from being simpler and local (as the Anarchists would have it), this approach is even more complex and detailed than anything we have seen before, so much so that it constitutes a whole new level of authority, sovereignty and power. This is not all, for in extensive research later in life, especially into the German ‘Mark’, Engels argued for a dialectical transformation, an Aufhebung to a whole new qualitative level of original or baseline communism and its democracy. These concise points require a significant amount of explanation and exegesis of Engels’s texts in order to show how he arrives at such formulations.

In a moment, I will offer an outline of the arguments of each of the four chapters of the book, but first a word on secondary literature. It is quite sparse, particularly work that focuses on Engels’s distinct contribution.[1] Most of the material available focuses on Marx, with either dismissals of Engels’s contribution or at most deploying Engels to fill in some gaps. Further, the works referenced here tend to be highly selective in the range of texts discussed, with the result that the conclusions reached are somewhat skewed. This is particularly so with the ‘dying away’ of the state, which is seen as either an expression of the core ‘anarchist’ position of Marxism itself (Kelsen 1949, 12; Tucker 1967); or somewhat of a fig leaf for ‘authoritarianism’ (Bloom 1946; Adamiak 1970); or as a dismantling of the structures of governance very soon after a proletarian revolution (Medalie 1959; Hunt 1984, 231-46). At times, the selection emphasises one feature at the expense of others – the most notable being a liking for the Paris commune and a down-playing of the proletarian dictatorship, let alone socialist Gewalt (Miliband 1965; 1991, 151; Avineri 1968, 202-20; Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Jessop 1978; Hunt 1984; Draper 1986, 175-306; Paolucci 2007, 233-37; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115; Ware 2019, 161-63). In other words, there is very little that engages with the important material Engels produced in the late 1870s and especially the 1880s. There are one or two exceptions, although now somewhat dated: the first is the work of Hal Draper, especially those relevant to the current study (Draper 1970, 1977, 1986, 1990). While Draper has worked with much of the relevant material and his work is helpful as a beginning point of research, like many others he focuses overwhelmingly on Marx and sidelines Engels. Further, his conclusions have a tendency to confirm his presuppositions and are not always so helpful. The second is Richard Hunt (Hunt 1984), whose exhaustive study does at least deal with some of the relevant texts by Engels, although not crucial ones such as ‘The Mark’ or ‘The Role of Force in History’. Yet, Hunt’s study is vitiated by an assumption found in much of the material mentioned above, namely, that subsequent historical experiences of socialism in power and the arduous task of constructing socialism somehow departed from what Engels and Marx had thought. This book should go at least part of the way to show how erroneous such an assumption is.

Now for a synopsis of the content to come. The first chapter deals initially with Engels’s programmatic observations on hitherto existing states, which would set the subsequent agenda not only for Marxist studies of such states, but also the Weberian tradition (Weber’s definition of the state borrows heavily from Engels). Apart from noting the key features of this analysis, which involves the core idea of the state as a ‘separated public power’, the chapter focuses on Engels’s shifts between seeing such states state as semi-autonomous, as instruments of a particular class in power, or as shaped in their very nature by the class in question. Engels moves between these three overlapping approaches, depending on the point he seeks to make, but he tends in more detailed work to opt for the third: that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power. This position emerges particularly in a relatively ignored work, ‘The Role of Force in History’ (1887-1888). Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ (1852), with the specific point that the bourgeoisie was able to shape the state in its image indirectly, even when it did not hold the reins of power. Even more important is the emergence of a core category, Gewalt. The word is difficult to translate; its semantic field includes the senses of force, power and violence, so I leave the word untranslated. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public Gewalt’, that a ‘public Gewalt’ exists that is not so separated, and that it is necessary for the workers’ movement to exercise socialist Gewalt.

This point leads to the second chapter, concerning socialist Gewalt and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key finding of this chapter is Engels’s emphasis on proletarian Gewalt, in both the revolutionary process and in the early stages of the construction of socialism when power is gained through a revolution. The concrete manifestation of this socialist Gewalt is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels (like Marx) defines carefully not as an individual dictatorship (as with Bakunin) or by a small band (Blanquist), but as a collective dictatorship by the majority, the workers. On this basis, Engels’s important contribution was to go beyond Marx in identifying the Paris commune with the proletarian dictatorship. The context was a struggle with the moderates of the increasingly large German Social Democratic Party, which tried to dispense with the dictatorship of the proletariat in its program and work within bourgeois democracy. In light of later tendencies in European communism to downplay the proletarian dictatorship and idealise the Paris commune (for example, with ‘Eurocommunism’ and the tendency among some European Marxists), Engels explicit argument that the commune was the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, even that it did not go far enough in exercising such a dictatorship, is a timely warning. The chapter concludes by analysing Engels’s explicit usage of ‘socialist Gewalt’ itself, both before and after a revolution. Crucially, Engels points out that political power also has economic influence and potency (Potenz).

The third chapter focuses on the ‘dying away’ of the state, in contrast to its ‘abolition’ as promulgated by Bakunin and the Anarchists in the late 1860s and 1870s. Given the many misunderstandings that surround the idea of the ‘dying away’ of the state, this is the longest chapter in book since it analyses in significant detail all of the relevant material. It begins by studying the wider context in the 184os among German socialists, finding that while they spoke of the abolition (Abschaffung), annihilation (Vernichtung) and dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of private property, money and inheritance, they rarely, if ever, spoke of the state as such. Instead, they envisioned alternative structures, either of a new state or of a new form of social organisation. This is true even of Proudhon, who deeply influenced these early German socialists. There is one notable exception: Max Stirner in his liberal anarchist work, The Ego and Its Own (1845), urged that the state should be abolished and annihilated. Thus, only when Engels and Marx (and others like Moses Hess) engage with Stirner do they speak of the abolition of the state, finding Stirner’s proposals wanting since its focus on an act of pure will.

It is only in 1850 that Engels (and Marx) speak directly of the ‘abolition [Abschaffung]’ of the state for the first time. Notably, this is a critical response to what had become a popular slogan in all manner of circles, including bourgeois ones where such an ‘abolition’ entailed a bourgeois order in which they would be left alone to pursue their private gain. Crucially, this piece – which borrows the language of the slogan – identifies Stirner as the source and introduces the need for a delay in such an abolition. This delay is an early result of the method hammered out in the years before and expressed clearly for the first time in the manifesto of 1848: the primary concern should be socio-economic matters. Thus, a communist revolution would have these as its main task, while any ‘abolition’ of the state would follow as an outcome of such activity. This would be the position, refined and sharpened, that both Engels and Marx would hold in the struggle with Bakunin, who first formulated a somewhat coherent Anarchist position in the late 1860s and particularly in 1870s.

For Bakunin, the state was the prime cause and foundation of all exploitation and oppression, whether political or economic. Thus, the first task of a revolutionary movement upon attaining power should be to abolish (Abschaffung) the state, as a willed and conscious act. Bakunin struggled to show why the state should have this foundational role, at times connecting its quasi-sacred status with the role of the Christian church. But for Engels and Marx, this approach simply did not make sense: in light of their approach, the state was a secondary phenomenon, arising from economic conditions and class struggle. Thus, a communist revolution would need to enact wide-sweeping changes to the means and relations of production before aspects of the superstructure, such as the state, could be addressed. In this context, we find an increasing emphasis that one of the final results of the process of constructing socialism, after other tasks had been achieved and the counter-revolution had been defeated, would be not the ‘abolition’ of the state, but its falling away, disappearance, going to sleep – the terms all appear in works of this time. Finally and as a way to sum up this position, Engels coined in the third edition of Anti-Dühring of 1894 the famous slogan: ‘the state is not abolished, it dies away’. The influence of this slogan is due to its appearance in the extracted material that appeared as ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, which was read and studied by all communists of the second and third generations.

The final chapter begins by addressing a contradiction that has arisen in light of the previous two chapters: between socialist Gewalt and the dying away of the of the state. The initial narrative of the former passing to the latter, which is part of Engels’s approach, addresses neither how authority and Gewalt would continue, nor the nature of governance in a communist society. Dealing with these questions is the focus on this chapter, although I undertake the task with an important caveat: Engels, and indeed Marx, never experienced the actual exercise of power after a communist revolution. They were fully aware of this reality, warning to such analysis can be undertaken only scientifically, only from actual experience. As Engels points out on a number of occasions, he and Marx were not in the business of creating utopian systems for the organisation of future of society.

The chapter has two main sections. The first part analyses a number of brief statements by Engels and Marx that may be collated as follows: public Gewalt loses its political character and becomes the administration of things and conduct of forces and relations of production, for the genuine good of society. The statements are notably brief, even formulaic, for the good reason that they had in their context no extensive data on the actual practice of socialist governance. There was, however, an abundance of information from another source: pre-state forms of social organisation that existed in many parts of the world. It was precisely to this source of information that Engels devoted considerable energy in the 1880s. Here he found complex and many-layered types of what he carefully called ‘social organisation’, which was not separated from but stood ‘in the midst of society’. They were not separated from society, not manifestations and means of class struggle, and thus did not constitute a state. Here, I seek to develop a terminology based on Engels, which speaks of the ‘enmeshed governance’ of ‘baseline communism’, with its attendant and indeed first form of human democracy. This is all very well, based as it was on the available historical anthropological material of the time, but what relevance does it have for the enmeshed governance of socialism, let alone communism? To answer this question, I focus on the remarkable work from 1882, ‘The Mark’. Here Engels outlines his research into this feature of German social life, from its earliest days to the present. The point – directed explicitly at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of this baseline communism. Far from a hankering for the rural socialism of the European Middle Ages, or for an idealised ‘primitive communism’, or even for a secularised version of the religious return to Paradise, this dialectical transformation would both negate this baseline communism and transform its core features into a qualitatively different reality. Given that such a form of governance would stand in the midst of society, it cannot be called a ‘state’; indeed, we reach the limits of the language derived from the Western European tradition, for with this type of enmeshed governance it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of the separation of state and society.

The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contributions provide the philosophical basis for future developments of the historical reality of socialist governance. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state – understood as a separated public Gewalt – as a secondary, long-term and gradual process; the development of de-politicised governance, which means that class struggle in no longer a feature of social and economic life, even if non-antagonistic contradictions persist; the enmeshment of governance within society, so that it is becomes increasingly impossible to distinguish between state and society or between state and economy. That this would entail new forms of governance is obvious, but at this point a question arises concerning continuity and discontinuity. On this matter it is important to strike a realistic balance: to suggest that Engels and indeed Marx foresaw, or perhaps should have foreseen, all of the developments in later efforts to construct socialism is simply unrealistic; to propose – as some of the literature mentioned earlier does – that later historical realities departed significantly from the original thoughts of the founders is even more extreme and simply not sustained by the evidence. Far better is a balanced approach. Thus, there is clearly significant continuity, much more than one might expect, between the initial philosophical foundations and the historical realities of socialism in power. At the same time, in the actual construction of socialism, from the Soviet Union to China, one would expect to face new problems for which new solutions were and are needed – albeit based on the initial principles and the method through which they were derived.. As Engels put it in 1890, ‘So-called “socialist society” is not, in my view, to be regarded as something that remains crystallised for all time, but rather being in process of constant change and transformation like all other social conditions’.

Finally, a word on the approach to citations. In all possible cases the primary citation is to the original language text by Engels (and Marx where relevant). These are in German, French and Italian, mostly available in the standard collections (Gesamtausgabe and the Werke), but at times they are not, since neither collection is complete. Where necessary, I have found the original language source outside such collections. In most cases, I provide my own translation to highlight particular features of the text, or at least a modification of the standard English translation found in the Collected Works. At the same time and for ease of reference for readers, I provide a reference to the English version, even if the translation offered does not conform to this version.

[1] In this work, I do not engage with Chinese language material, for that is the main focus on another work called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

How to Deal with an Old Revolutionary: The Struggle over Engels’s 1895 Introduction to Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles in France’

A few months before Engels died a crucial struggle emerged in the communist movement. It had to do with Engels’s introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Engels 1895 [1990], 1895 [2010]). Marx’s original text had been published as a series of articles in Neue Rheinische Zeitung over 1849-1850. In 1895 it was decided by the editorial board of the German Social-Democratic Party to gather the articles and publish them as a distinct book, so they approached Engels for advice and with a request to write an introduction. After some hesitation, Engels agreed, sending three articles that Marx had written and suggesting a fourth chapter that he had gathered from later material (some written by both Marx and Engels) to be entitled ‘The Abolition of Universal Suffrage in 1850’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-f, 444; 1895 [1973]-e, 410). The title of the whole work, by which it is now known, was also proposed by Engels. Soon afterwards, he also sent them the introduction.

This introduction includes a long assessment of the situation in the 1890s with regard to military action by insurgents, street fighting and barricades. With his long-standing military knowledge, Engels assesses the changing circumstances in terms of tactics, weaponry and perceptions of the public in response to revolutionaries. He also notes the rise of communist parties as electoral forces, urging caution and careful assessment of the new context before engaging in such actions. The risk of failure is even greater and the possibility of moral victory attained in earlier efforts has largely vanished. Yet he firmly holds to the need for revolutionary action in the future, which would have to carefully considered and revised: fewer skirmishes before a major revolution are more likely, but revolution is still required.

Before examining the fate of this introduction, let me set the context. It appeared at a time when the communist movement worldwide had made considerable progress. Political parties had established themselves and gained hundreds of thousands of members, especially in Germany, a situation that produced considerable debate over theory, policies and programs. The catch was that they now were able to operate largely within the structures of the bourgeois state and its form of democracy. Pressure grew to soften communism’s more radical edges, since some felt that these threatened the new-found legitimacy of the parties in question. The push for moderation was enhanced by the famous anti-socialist laws instigated by Bismarck from 1878 to 1890. Even though support for the German Social-Democratic Party grew during this period, questions arose. Should the party continue to advocate ‘illegal’ means, such as revolution and proletarian dictatorship? Or should it be content to work within the existing structures and pursue peaceful transition?

To return to the introduction.[1] Upon receiving the text for publication, the executive of the Social-Democratic party became decidedly anxious. They were torn between immense respect for Engels’s authority and their delicate political position in Germany. Not only were the anti-socialist laws still fresh in everyone’s memory and experience, but the Reichstag was also debating in the early months of 1895 yet another law aimed at preventing a ‘coup-d’état’. Thus, the editors were working at a feverish pace to complete all of the publications in case the law came into effect (Engels 1895 [2004]-a, 453), but they were also keen not to aggravate the situation. So they asked: would Engels please tone down the excessive revolutionary tenor of the piece so as not to incite the authorities? He was sent a copy-edited text in which all references to future revolutionary militancy were altered or excised. At times it was a phrase, at times a sentence and at times a whole paragraph. In his reply to Richard Fischer in March of 1895, Engels was clearly unhappy with the efforts to subscribe to absolute legality under any circumstances. Nothing can be gained, he writes, by ‘advocating complete abstention from force’; no person, no party would forfeit the right to resist ‘by force of arms [Waffen in der Hand]’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-e, 457; 1895 [1973]-d, 424). Yet, he understood the party’s position in Germany and so relented on some editorial changes but resisted five others that would have changed the meaning entirely. A couple of weeks later, he wrote to Kautsky that his text had suffered to some extent from the ‘apprehensive [umsturzvorlagenfurchtsamlichen] objections, inspired by the Subversion Bill, of our friends in Berlin’, but he also acknowledged that in light of circumstances he ‘could not but take account’ of these objections (Engels 1895 [2004]-c, 480; 1895 [1973]-b, 446). From the side of the editors, perhaps Bebel’s letter to Engels a few days later captures the tensions best: ‘We do not ask you to say something that you do not wish to say – or may not say – but we ask you not to say something which, if said at this time, would be embarrassing for us’ (Blumenberg 1965, 795).[2]

The story has further twists. Under Liebknecht’s guidance, the editors disregarded Engels’s reservations and pressed ahead with all of the changes they had made. They published selections from the introduction in the leading article of Vorwärts, number 76, on 30 March, 1895, under the title ‘Wie man heute Revolutionen macht’. The authorship was attributed to Engels. Upon receipt of the issue of Vorwärts, Engels was incensed. The next day he wrote to Kautsky: ‘I was amazed to see today in in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my “Introduction” that had been printed without my prior knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent [friedfertiger Anbete] of legality quand même’. He requested that the complete text should be published in Neue Zeit so that ‘this disgraceful impression [schmähliche Eindruck] may be erased’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-b, 486; 1895 [1973]-a, 452). And he promised to give Liebknecht and others involved a piece of his mind for disfiguring and ‘perverting [zu entstellen]’ his views.

Neither would eventuate. As for the letter to Liebknecht, perhaps it was the advancing throat cancer – from a life of enjoying tobacco and alcohol – that prevented him from castigating those involved. Perhaps the letter has been lost. As for the anticipated rectification in Neue Zeit, the journal published the introduction in the heavily edited form in numbers 27 and 28. And the book, The Class Struggles in France 1849-1850, appeared in the same year with the introduction in the form that the editors deemed fit. Only much later would the full original text be published.

What are we to make of this important moment? While Engels did not use ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in his introduction, Marx had deployed it for the first time in the very same text that was now being published in book form. Clearly, many were uncomfortable with the idea and its militancy. So we may resort to a betrayal narrative, in which the ‘revisionists’ – taking advantage of Engels’s failing health – betrayed the need for revolution for the sake of parliamentary reform.[3] Or we may follow the line of many at the time, who suggested that Engels had realised the need for peaceful parliamentary means within the structures of the bourgeois state (Hunt 2010, 238-39). Or we may invoke a line from Engels a few years earlier: ‘do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat [Das war die Diktatur des Proletariats]’ (Engels 1891 [1990]-b, 191; 1891 [2010]-a, 16). For some, the conflation of the commune and the dictatorship assists in softening the militant and violent import of the dictatorship in favour of comradely cooperation (Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Miliband 1991, 151; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115).

By contrast, I suggest that Engels may be the best guide here, as reflected in his observations to Paul Lafargue a couple of days after he became aware of what had happened. He accuses Liebknecht of playing a ‘fine trick [Streich]’ on him by taking from his introduction ‘everything that could serve his purpose in support of peaceful and anti-violent [Gewaltanwendung verwerfende] tactics at any price’, especially in light of the threat of new laws against the socialists. At this point, we can easily suggest that Engels had been betrayed, but then he writes: ‘I preach those tactics only for the Germany of today and even then with many reservations [mit erheblichen Vorbehalten]’. Despite his best instincts, Engels realises the need for such an approach in a particular situation. In certain circumstances, it is necessary to adapt for a time in order to advance the cause. Some may call this ‘opportunism’, but if so, it is a productive opportunism, a needed zigzag so that the project may continue. Liebknecht, Engels feels, lack this sense, seeing only black and white: ‘Shades don’t exit for him’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-d, 489-90; 1895 [1973]-c, 458). In other words, communism requires not one or the other, not revolution or reform, but appropriate tactics for specific circumstances. Engels’s legacy would come to fruition with subsequent communist leaders, especially those who actually experienced socialism in power such as Lenin, Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping.

Bibliography

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———. 1895 [2004]-b. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 486. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

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———. 1895 [2004]-f. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13 February 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 444-45. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2010]. ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. I.32, 330-51. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Hunt, Tristram. 2010. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. New York: Picador.

Johnstone, Monty. 1971. ‘The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. The Massachusetts Review 12 (3):447-62.

Kautsky, Karl. 1899. Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm: Eine Antikritik. Stuttgart: Dietz.

Lenin, V.I. 1918 [1965]. ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’. In Collected Works, Vol. 28, 227-325. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Miliband, Ralph. 1991. ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. In A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 151-52. Oxford: Blackwell.

Möser, Sandy. 1990. ‘Zur Weiterentwicklung der Revolutionstheorie in Friedrich Engels’ “Einleitung zu Karl Marx’ ‘Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850′” und zur unmittelbaren Wirkung dieser Arbeit’. Beiträge zue Marx-Engels-Forschung 139:139-44.

Tudor, Henry, and J.M. Tudor. 1988. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896-1898 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Ree, Erik. 2015. Boundaries of Utopia – Imagining Communism from Plato to Stalin. London: Routledge.

[1] For a useful overview of the events, see Möser (1990).

[2] Translation mine.

[3] But who are the revisionists? Is Liebknecht one of them? Engels obviously thought so in 1895, with his efforts to water down the militant emphasis upon which he and Marx had always insisted. Yet Liebknecht would become part of the Spartacus League, being a leader of the Spartacist Uprising on 1919 in which he (and Rosa Luxemburg) were murdered. How about Kautsky? Lenin identified Kautsky as a ‘renegade’ due to his advocacy of the ballot box and decrying of the Russian Revolution (Lenin 1918 [1965]). Was is Bernstein (1993, 1899) with his advocacy of peaceful transition once the bourgeoisie saw the benefits of socialism. Now Kautsky becomes a radical, for he opposed Bernstein as the chief theoretician of the second generation (Kautsky 1899; Tudor and Tudor 1988).

Narratives of Betrayal: A ‘Western’ Trope

A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic[1] approaches to communism is the narrative of betrayal: at some point, a communist revolution was betrayed by someone, betrayed itself, ran into the mud, ‘failed’.

I was first struck by this narrative some years ago when I was working intensely on Lenin.[2] And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin.[3] Recently, it has struck me once again while delving into the theory and practice of the socialist state. Let me be clear: the betrayal narrative is one found mostly in European-derived traditions. Although Marxists in these parts are fond of the narrative, it is also common among liberals and conservatives. One can find stray examples other parts of the world too, in the mouths of one or two who have been unduly influenced by this narrative. In what follows, I outline some examples of the narrative, before turning to consider the closely related dimension of pristine origins.

Betrayals, Betrayals Everywhere

If you hold to this type of story, a betrayal can be found almost everywhere you look. The initial example is that Engels betrayed Marx. Being of lesser intellect and not adequately trained – or so the story goes – Engels did not understand Marx. So Engels ‘glossed’ and ‘distorted’ what Marx said, especially in work that he produced on his own or after Marx’s death. It may have been Engels’s immense efforts in editing the second and third volumes of Capital, or his Dialectics of Nature (1873-82) and Anti-Dühring (1877-78) from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was drawn. Thus, the editing efforts botched Marx’s work, while the effort to extend dialectical materialism into the natural sciences was fatally flawed. Given the profound influence of Anti-Dühring on the subsequent tradition – every Marxist of the second and third generations studied this text closely – that tradition was impossibly betrayed at the hand of Engels. It is relatively easy to refute this narrative, but this is not my task here.

Lenin’s putative betrayal is more contested ground, with some seeing Lenin as a purveyor of distorted Marxism from the beginning, others that Lenin betrayed the revolution after October 1917, or that Stalin was responsible for the betrayal. But what is meant by ‘betrayal’ in this case? Let me take the example of Lenin’s betrayal of himself, for this is consistent with the role of Stalin in this case. According to this story, Lenin held to some form of ‘democratic’ position, envisaging the soviets as versions of the Paris commune. The model may have been updated and reshaped a little in light of circumstances, but it held to ‘democratic participation’ by workers and peasants at local and national levels, open and free-wheeling debate within the communist party, and would form the basis of socialism after the revolution. However, what happened very rapidly was an authoritarian move, hollowing out the soviets in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, if not replacing the proletarian dictatorship with the dictatorship of the party. In short, Lenin moved from a ‘democratic’ commune model to an authoritarian approach. Stalin merely carried this through to its logical conclusion. The examples could be multiplied: economically, ‘state capitalism’ was gradually introduced, a global revolution was abandoned for the sake of socialism in one country, the ‘withering away of the state’ was replaced with an authoritarian state characterised by the secret police, the self-determination of minority nationalities turned into their forced assimilation, and so on. The only difference is where one draws the line, whether within Lenin’s own thought and practice or between Lenin and Stalin. The latter is, of course, the one who began to be systematically demonised not long after he died.[4]

These days, I am most interested in the way a betrayal narrative has been constructed and is now assumed by many in the case of Chinese socialism. I am less interested in the hypothesis that Mao betrayed Marxism himself, whether because he took over unreconstructed Soviet Marxism of the 1930s or whether he did so of his own initiative. I am more interested in how the betrayal narrative has been deployed by self-confessed ‘Maoists’ and how this has influenced a wider misperception from conservatives to radicals.

According to this version, Mao was indeed a true communist, developing a breath-taking version adapted for Chinese conditions. The culmination of Mao’s vision was the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here was full collectivisation, public property, equality in pay and even clothes, idealism, the beginnings of socialist culture …. However, waiting in the wings was Deng Xiaoping, the ‘capitalist roader’. Rising high, deposed, then returning on Mao’s death and dispensing with the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng began – so it is asserted – the process of turning China from a socialist country into a capitalist one. All of this is embodied in the ‘reform and opening up’ from 1979. And Deng began the process of using coded language to indicate the shift: ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was and is a code for rampant capitalism; a ‘socialist market economy’ does equal service; ‘core socialist values’ means liberalism. All this was extremely clever, it is suggested, since the CPC could not give up on the rhetoric of Marxism, so it emptied Marxism of any meaning (perhaps replacing it with nationalism. The purpose: to keep the CPC firmly in power.

This story continues: subsequent presidents – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – played the same game. Now we find the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (Chinese welfare state), the rise of a ‘middle class’, the ‘suppression’ of the working class – all with a nod and wink while speaking of Marxism. And Xi Jinping has produced his own collection of terms: the ‘Chinese Dream’, the ‘two centenary goals’ and revitalised the term ‘moderately prosperous’ society, all the while clamping down on ‘dissent’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to enhance his hold on power. A communist party has – according to this spectacular story – enabled the transition not from capitalism to socialism, but from socialism to capitalism.

The pieces of this narrative have been laid carefully for two or three decades, trading on half-truths, wilful ignorance and sheer twisting of the facts. Apart from the fact that it faces enormous difficulties in understanding the role of Marxism in Chinese socialism, all the way from culture and education, through society and politics, to economics, it usually entails a pre-judgement that means one does not even need to bother with Marxism as such in China. After all, no-one ‘believes’ in it anymore, do they?

As a final sample of this narrative of betrayal, let me return to Marx. In this case, it is the younger humanistic Marx who betrays the older scientific one. How so? It begins with the late publication of some key materials from the young Marx, such as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ in 1927, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in 1932, and The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels, in 1932. Here is a younger, more ‘humanistic’ Marx, which led and continues to lead some to emphasise this dimension of his thought as a counter to ‘Scientific Socialism’ (whether of the Soviet Union or in other forms). In response, Althusser in particular has argued that this earlier material – published later – was not the true Marx, who is to be found in his later, scientific works. This would have to be the most intriguing betrayal narrative of all, since it operates in reverse.

Pristine Origins

As I have already indicated, I focus here neither on how these specific accounts face immense hurdles on closer scrutiny, nor the motivation for them, but on the nature of the narrative of betrayal itself. Two points are relevant.

First, the story has profound resonances with the biblical story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here a ‘paradise’ – if somewhat flawed due to the forbidden tree(s) – is lost due to the wilful disobedience of the first human beings. Initially, it was a southwest Asian story that has overlaps with others from the same part of the world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it eventually became a crucial story in European culture. The story in its biblical form has a distinct political setting, providing the eventual justification for a form of governance (monarchy) and control of wayward human beings (Thomas Hobbes comes to mind as an influential later version of this account). But it has come to be seen in much wider terms, speaking of the human condition, characterised by a mythical account of disobedience, sin and betrayal of an original ideal impulse. In this form, it became part of the wider foundations for European-derived cultures, shaping cultural assumptions, the nature of thought processes, if not historical reconstructions even of the modern variety. Thus, the narrative of Genesis, European assumptions concerning human nature, the way history is so often reconstructed, as well as narratives concerning Marxism seem to have a remarkably similar pattern.

Second and related, the account of betrayal trades on a notion of pristine origins. Time and again, I have found that a purveyor of one or another version of the story assumes a distinct idea of what socialism should be (never what actually exists). They base this idea on some texts of Marx. I write ‘some’ deliberately, for the texts selected form a ‘canon within the canon’: favoured texts that are meant to express the core of Marx’s position. Thus, socialism (which Marx did not distinguish from communism) appears in the Paris commune, concerning which Marx waxed lyrical in ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871). Here workers devolved the functions of parliament, army, police and judiciary to workers’ bodies that were directly elected and subject to recall. The commune was decentralised, removed repression and did away with the ‘state’. Or one may invoke parts of ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, especially in the higher stage of communism, when economic exploitation is removed, classes disappear, even divisions between town and country, if not between mental and physical labour, so that the biblically-derived communist slogan applies: ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Once you have these original and authentic definitions of socialism and/or communism, you can make an easy connection with a betrayal narrative.[5] Before a revolution, or perhaps for a while afterwards, the revolutionaries held to the ideal – think of Lenin in particular, but also Mao. But soon enough, they gave up on the ideal. It may have been force of circumstances, or a turn in the face of imminent failure, or simply a weakness of will. And if Lenin or Mao did not do so themselves, then Stalin or Deng were responsible for overturning the socialist ideal and destroying it. The outcome: socialism has never been realised as yet, for the true moment still awaits us.

Once again, this search for and latching onto a notion of pristine origins has resonances with Christian thought and practice. In this case, the authentic moment may be found somewhere in the biblical texts, preferably in the words of Jesus himself (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a favoured location). Soon enough, these words and the community they envisaged was adulterated and betrayed. Here the line can be drawn at almost any point: between Jesus and the early church (the Apostle Paul); between the form of the early Christian community and the later betrayal by the institutional church; between the doctrine of justification by faith through grace and the doctrine of salvation by works …

The problem here is that one can find justification for a number of positions in the texts, for these texts are not uniform. So one has to choose some texts, downgrade or ignore the others that contradict one’s choice and then criticise those who latch onto precisely these downgraded texts. The history of Christianity reveals this process again and again. A group or a spokesperson emerges, argues that the institution as it exists has betrayed and sullied the original impulse, and begins a process of reform in the name of an authentic and original ideal based on a selection of texts. Sometimes, these movements were contained and channelled within the institution (think of the medieval orders in the Roman Catholic Church or monastic renewal in the Eastern Orthodox Church). At other times, they were brutally repressed and crushed, as many a radical religious movement in the European Middle Ages. And at other times, due to wider cultural, social and economic shifts, the reform effort became a whole new and enduring movement. The Protestant Reformation is the most notable example.

The analogies with European-derived Marxism should be obvious, if not the struggles between the varieties of socialist, communist and anarchist movements today (as Engels already noted in his ‘On the History of Early Christianity’ from 1895). But we can find it also among non-Marxists and even anti-Marxists. They too assume a certain definition of an ideal socialism, usually based on the very same texts used by Marxists, and then use those to dismiss the actual efforts to construct socialism.

Alternatives

I have focused on European-derived, or ‘Western’ Marxism due to its preference for betrayal narratives and ideas of pristine origins. It can also be found in Russian Marxism, given the comparable cultural dynamics of that part of the world (think of the long-running struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and what their names have come to signify).

Are there alternative approaches that may well do better than the one I have been analysing? Recently, I was having one of my many discussions with a Chinese comrade and we came to the topic in question. In fact, these reflections arose in part from that discussion. She is fully aware of the narrative of betrayal, having devoted much of her working life to studying ‘Western’ Marxism. But she also admitted to not understanding it; or rather, she finds it difficult to understand how it can make sense of actual tradition. Instead, she prefers a process of clarification of previously obscure or unresolved points in each subsequent development. Is that a more Chinese approach? I wondered. Yes, it is, she affirmed. How do mistakes arise, or is every statement a clarification? Mistakes do arise, such as when there is an effort to turn back the clock, to reassert an older and more obscure position that has subsequently been clarified. Or perhaps if someone moves to undermine and dispense with Marxism itself.

I am still working out the implications of this clarifying approach, particularly if it can also incorporate the following possibilities. One is to argue for interpretation in the spirit, rather than the letter of Marxism. Or: instead of invoking the letter of the original text and judging all in its light, one sees Marxism as a method for dealing with every new situation. As Lenin, Stalin and Mao were fond of saying, Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

The other approach is related but takes a different approach. Changing historical circumstances produce new problems that must be analysed and solved in new ways. These problems did not face Marx or Engels, while other problems did not face subsequent leaders. The circumstances have been and are many, ranging from unforeseen economic problems, through the development of policies in relation to minority nationalities, to what a socialist culture might actually be. Perhaps the two main changes in circumstances turn on the question of power. Marx and Engels were never in a position to exercise power after a successful communist revolution (as they well knew), so most of the developments in relation to socialism in power had to deal with issues that they simply had not experienced and could not foresee. And none of the previous experiences of socialism in power has prepared us for the moment when China becomes not merely the most powerful socialist country in human history (it already is), but the most powerful economic, political and cultural force in the world.

[1] Or ‘Western’, but this term is loose and impossible-to-pin-down. Chinese has an ideal term, meiou, using the first character for the USA (meiguo) and for Europe (ouzhou), but this is impossible to render into English, except perhaps as ‘Euro-American’. Even this term loses the specificity of the USA and replaces it with a term for the two continents of South and North America.

[2] See especially Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,”  Monthly Review Magazine(2011), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014), http://philosophersforchange.org/2014/10/28/the-failure-of-communism-a-fall-narrative.

[3] Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power  (Beijing: Springer, 2017).

[4] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera  (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[5] This search for origins can also be manifested in the whole dynamic of ‘revisionism’ in Marxism itself (I have heard the charge levelled at someone only recently and with some vigour).

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.

Engels and the tale of the cotton bale

Engels’s tale of the cotton bale was one he used often, especially in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist market economy is:

Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests?

MECW 4: 246-47.

Can a religious person join the communist party?

Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at  www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See http://www.cuba.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=229:central-report-to-the-6th-congress-of-the-communist-party-of-cuba&catid=49:politik-og-historie&Itemid=50.

[10] http://en.people.cn/n/2015/0202/c90785-8844565.html.

Spirit versus Letter: On interpreting Marx

One of the more fascinating aspects of reading carefully through Stalin’s writings is what may be called the scriptural dynamic of spirit and letter. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’. Stalin is clearly on the side of the spirit through the letter in interpreting the texts of Marx and Lenin. Thus, Marx’s thought applies to emerging capitalism, while Lenin’s thought is Marxism in the age of imperialism. To emphasise his approach, he tells a story provided by Swedish socialists:

It was at the time of the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt in the Crimea. Representatives of the navy and army came to the Social-Democrats and said: “For some years past you have been calling on us to revolt against tsarism. Well, we are now convinced that you are right, and we sailors and soldiers have made up our mints to revolt and now we have come to you for advice.” The Social-Democrats became flurried and replied that they couldn’t decide the question of a revolt without a special conference. The sailors intimated that there was no time to lose, that everything was ready, and that if they did not get a straight answer from the Social-Democrats, and if the Social-Democrats did not take over the direction of the revolt, the whole thing might collapse. The sailors and soldiers went away pending instructions, and the Social-Democrats called a conference to discuss the matter. They took the first volume of Capital, they took the second volume of Capital, and then they took the third volume of Capital, looking for some instruction about the Crimea, about Sevastopol, about a revolt in the Crimea. But they could not find a single, literally not a single instruction in all three volumes of Capital either about Sevastopol, or about the Crimea, or about a sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt. They turned over the pages of other works of Marx and Engels, looking for instructions—but not a single instruction could they find. What was to be done? Meanwhile the sailors had come expecting an answer. Well, the Social-Democrats had to confess that under the circumstances they were unable to give the sailors and soldiers any instructions. “And so the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt collapsed.” (Works, volume 9, pages 97-98)

Lenin’s approach to writing

Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.

As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Worksthat’s a lot of whispering.

The joyfulness of revolution

Two great moments on the sheer joy of revolution. First Lefebvre:

Between the moment of faith and that of joy there would be a place for the revolution …. Marxism … was a means to pass from the reign of faith to that of joy, or if one wishes, from the reign of faith to the reign of Spirit.

And then August Bebel on Engels’s weekend parties, which provided a small taste of what communism might look like:

On Sundays, Engels would throw open his house … On those puritanical days when no merry men can bear life in London, Engels’s house was open to all … We kept it up till half past three in the morning and drank, besides claret, sixteen bottles of champagne.