Codes and Conspiracies, or, Trying to Understand the Infantile Disorder of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism

From time to time, I try to understand those who believe that China has made or is still making a transition from socialism to capitalism. Earlier, I explored the orientalist dimensions of this belief, as well as the reliance on a ‘betrayal narrative’, but here I would like to focus on the need to rely on codes. In brief: all of the statements by the CPC, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, function as a code. They say one thing but actually mean something else. So what one needs is the key to the code, after which one can set to work deciphering the various statements.

What is the key to this code? According to those who believe in the code, the key is a conspiracy: from Deng Xiaoping onwards a vast conspiracy has been unfolding, which is nothing less than the transition from socialism to capitalism. I will not go into the details here as to why this conspiracy theory arose, based as it was on selected interpretation of events in the 1980s and even 1990s. Instead, I am interested in how the need for a code arises from the conspiracy theory.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through a few examples.

There are more obvious examples, such as the hypothesis that the ‘reform and opening up’ (celebrating 40 years in 2018) is not so much the necessary process of reform after a communist revolution (already clear from Lenin’s work), but simply a code for the passage to capitalism. Or the ‘socialist market economy’ is a coded way of speaking about capitalism with government ‘interference’ – neglecting the historical fact that a capitalist market economy is only one form of market economies.

But there are some more intriguing examples. To begin with, Deng Xiaoping famously said that if one wishes to cross a river, one must feel each stone on the river bed at a time with one’s feet. The obvious meaning of this statement is that the passage to socialism, and then communism, requires careful attention to each problem, each fact, which requires analysis and solution. But no, for those who believe in the conspiracy theory, he was speaking in a code: crossing a river entails going from one bank to another. Since China was socialist at one point, they believe, the other bank must be capitalism. A bit of a stretch, given that Deng made it clear China was in the preliminary stage of socialism.

More recently – 2017 at the nineteenth congress of the CPC – Xi Jinping famously announced a new primary contradiction that would guide government policy. This contradiction is between uneven and unequal development and the people’s desire for a better life (meihua shenghuo). Apart from drawing straight out of Mao Zedong’s major essay, ‘On Contradiction’, Comrade Xi made it clear that a ‘better life’ meant not only a ‘moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui)’ by 2020, but a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050, which would be achieved through socialist modernisation. At the core of all this is Marxist political economy and the construction of socialism.

But what do our conspiracy theorists make of this? The desire for a ‘better life’ is a code for the full transition to capitalism.

Now we come the obvious problem of this use of a code. The more Xi Jinping makes Marxism central to China’s project, the harder one must work to fit it all into the code. Anomalies appear, much thought is devoted to working the many pieces into the code … so much so that even doctoral theses are devoted to deciphering the code (outside China). A waste of energy.

I am reminded of someone who taught me biblical languages many, many years ago. She believed that the New Testament was a massive code that really talked about specific events at the Qumran community (which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, as many hold). I recall her coming into class on some days full of excitement: she had cracked another part of the code that had been bothering her. Do not get me wrong: she taught me Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic very well indeed. The discussions about her code-cracking were held around the edges of class time. But the experience has made me acutely aware of how much time and energy people devote to deciphering codes after they have believed in a core conspiracy.

All of which brings me back to Lenin and his great booklet from 1920, ‘“Left-Wing” Communism – An Infantile Disorder’. Lenin’s immediate target may have been different, but the problem persists. Stalin faced the problem, as did Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping today. Among the international Left one can find such ‘left-wing’ communists from time to time and they are keen to find the occasional person in China who is happy to pander to their desires. I find it both a lazy approach and one that faces immense problems to sustain not only the great conspiracy, but also to need to believe in a vast code that they must constantly seek to reinforce.


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.


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),; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014),

[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.

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

[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


On being a disciple of Lenin (not Stalin)

Stalin himself was not keen on disciples, as he writes in a letter from 1926:

I object to your calling yourself “a disciple of Lenin and Stalin.” I have no disciples. Call yourself a disciple of Lenin; you have the right to do so … But you have no grounds for calling yourself a disciple of a disciple of Lenin’s. It is not true. It is out of place. (Works, vol. 9, p. 156)

Lenin and the rock of salvation

Here Lenin is compared to the ‘rock of salvation’ of Christianity:

The fact that Russia, which was formerly regarded by the oppressed nationalities as a symbol of oppression, has now, after it has become socialist, been transformed into a symbol of emancipation, cannot be called an accident. Nor is it an accident that the name of the leader of the October Revolution, Comrade Lenin, is now the most beloved name pronounced by the downtrodden, oppressed peasants and revolutionary intelligentsia of the colonial and unequal countries. In the past, the oppressed and downtrodden slaves of the vast Roman Empire regarded Christianity as a rock of salvation. We are now reaching the point where socialism may serve (and is already beginning to serve!) as the banner of liberation for the millions who inhabit the vast colonial states of imperialism (Stalin, Works, Vol. V, p. 354).

Lenin 90th anniversary of death - Red Square

Lenin and Religion 07

Losurdo on Stalin: recreating the state, re-education (Gulags), and affirmative action

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education, government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.

Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil: The Red Terror

I am working on an article called ‘Towards a Materialist Doctrine if Evil’, which may form the basis of a chapter in a book on Stalin. So here are some first and possibly provocative thoughts on the crucial role of the Red Terror in such a doctrine.

One of the most significant steps in the development of a doctrine of evil is the Red Terror. I understand such a Terror as the struggle against the counter-revolution, the success of that struggle being then the success of the revolution itself. Within that struggle, the Terror peaks at certain times, such as that following the assassination attempts on Lenin or Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. Here theory is born of practice and events, a nascent theory of the strength and power of evil. I mean not that the Red Terror is itself an evil, as so much anti-communist propaganda would have it, but that the Terror is a response to evil. In order to lay out that argument, I distinguish once again between external and internal factors. The identification of external evil is the easier option, while the awful awareness of the internal nature of evil is an awareness gained with much pain. The following traces a path from external to internal, from threats outside a new communist state to ones that emerge from its internal workings. Needless to say, I now focus squarely on the far more interesting features of a post-revolutionary situation, where real practical and theoretical innovation may be found.

Little argument is needed for the point that the Red Terror is necessary to deal with external foes, for a communist revolution must counter the international efforts to crush it. Even before the success of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, the tsar had made an agreement with powers like France and Germany that they would assist the tsar in countering the effects of the 1905 revolutionary upsurge. These international efforts became even more intense after 1917, when the ‘Entente’ – UK, France, Germany, USA, Canada and others – enacted an economic blockade and provided troops, equipment and logistics to the White Armies during what is euphemistically called the ‘civil’ war. Less than two decades later, Nazi Germany would pick up the banner of the international cause that sought to crush communism in the USSR. A similar situation may be found with the long struggle of the Chinese Revolution, during which these powers provided significant assistance to Chang Kai-Shek’s Guomintang in its efforts to wipe out the communists. After 1949, they continued their efforts, whether through the Korean War, through economic blockades, or through diplomatic isolation. In these cases, the Red Terror played a crucial role in defeating the international counter-revolution.[1]

More important is the internal role of the Red Terror. In Russia, the first peak of the Terror followed the assassination attempts on Lenin and others in 1918. After the near fatal shooting of 30 August of that year,[2] the militant Stalin suggested a systematic mass terror against those behind the assassination attempt, but also against opponents of the new government. So the government directed Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, to commence what was officially called a Red Terror.[3]

Of course, reactionary commentators salivate over such a development, seeking to attribute as much to Lenin as possible (Figes 1998, Gellately 2007, Volkogonov 1994, Werth et al. 1999). It matters little for my analysis whether he or others approved the Red Terror, from arrests and imprisonment to the execution of the Romanov family, but what is important is the fact that it happened in response to an act of terror. That is, the Red Terror was not an initiator of violence, but a response to anti-revolutionary violence. It was thereby a response to the concrete reality of evil, a rude awakening to how vicious and desperate the internal forces opposed to the revolution really were. The belief in the inherent goodness of human beings came face to face with the deeply troubling realisation of human evil.

What of the oft-cited ‘excesses’ of the Red Terror, such as the summary executions of suspected saboteurs? One element here is the uncontrolled nature of revolutionary violence. It typically runs its own course, straying here and there in the euphoria of the moment. More significantly, a Red Terror may be seen as the belated outburst of deep patterns of working class and peasant anger at the long and brutal oppression by the former ruling classes, an oppression that makes any Red Terror look tame by comparison. In Russia, the long history of capricious and vicious violence at the hands of the landlords, factory tyrants, Black Hundreds (recall the frequent pogroms), and tsarist troops were remembered. Now at last was an opportunity to settling old scores, since the workers and peasants were finally in control. In this situation, Lenin’s argument in The State and Revolution (1917 [1964]), that the dictatorship of the proletariat must smash the bourgeois dictatorship, found ready acceptance and was enacted through the Red Terror.[4]

Perhaps the greatest peak of the Red Terror as a practical working out of a doctrine of evil is that of the purges and ‘show trials’ under Stalin in the 1930s. Through repeated condemnations of Cold War propaganda, these have become the epitome of Stalin’s ‘paranoia’ and brutal ‘dictatorship’.[5] Their initial cause was the assassination in December 1934 of Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Communist Party. As with the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, this was the trigger for seeking out the enemy within, resulting in more than 726,000 executed. The ‘Great Terror’ reached a climax between 1936 and 1938: the trial of the Sixteen, of the anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre, of the generals (most notably Marshall Tukhachevskii), and of the Twenty-One. Eventually, nearly all the Old Bolsheviks were caught up in the purge, including Grigory Zonoviev, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, and Leon Trotsky. In the purge of the Red Army alone, 34,000 officers were arrested (although 11,500 were reinstated), including 476 senior commanders.[6] However, I am less interested here in the public relations disaster that the trials became, in the widespread debate at the time, with the defenders of the trials outweighed by those who condemned them, even in the fodder they provided for Cold War propaganda.[7] Instead, I wish to focus on the way they reveal a more realistic (and arguably pessimistic) assessment of the propensity to evil.

The key to the trials, as well as the purges, is their over-compensation for the lack of properly robust doctrine of evil, and the way they produced a nascent theory of the internal dialectic of evil. Although they may have weeded out wavering elements in Stalin’s push towards collectivisation, as well as sections of the Red Army that may have been less than resolute during the soon-to-come struggle with Hitler’s massed forces (for by far the main struggle and thereby locus of victory was on the Russian front), the sweeping nature of the trials and purges, along with the relocations of parts of the population who resisted Stalin’s moves, indicates an effort to compensate for an overly benign view of human goodness. It may be relatively easy to identify the enemy without, but the enemy within is a very different matter.

I would like to identify two moments when the new theoretical awareness of the dialectical nature of evil began to work its way to the surface, the one individual and the other collective. Let me begin with the individual confessions given in the trials, for they indicate not so much cowering before the threat of coercion or even the result of such coercion (the common position of those who condemn the trials), but the fact that those charged owned the confessions. That is, even if they had not committed all the acts confessed, they came to believe that they were in fact true. The confession of Bukharin is the paradigm of this process. This central figure in the communist party, with senior roles – among others, member of the Politburo, secretary of the Comintern, chief editor of Pravda and author of major works – and for a while Stalin’s closest ally, fell out due to his opposition to Stalin’s move leftward, especially the push to undertake rapid collectivisation. His initial confession, the spectacular withdrawal, the reinterrogation, admission to the totality of the crimes but denial of knowledge of specific crimes, 34 letters to Stalin (written from prison) with their tearful protestations of loyalty and admission, the four books written, and then his conduct in the trial in which he subtly criticised the very confession he had made, even to the point of questioning the out-dated role of the confession itself – all these illustrate the sheer impossibility of locating the dividing line between good and evil.[8] Above all, Bukharin’s last plea plays out all these contradictions in extraordinary detail. Once again he admits all his guilt in opposing the rapid push towards communism, even in plotting to overthrow the government, but then he turns around to question and deny individual charges, saying at times that he can neither deny nor confirm a charge own admission (Bukharin 1938, 767-79). The most telling section is when he identifies within himself a ‘peculiar duality of mind’, even a ‘dual psychology’ that was caught in the contradiction between a degenerating counter-revolutionary tendency and what he calls a ‘semi-paralysis of the will’, a contradiction that was in turn generated by ‘objective grandeur of socialist construction’. He is nothing less than the Hegelian ‘unhappy consciousness’ (Bukharin 1938, 776-77). I suggest that this extraordinary text reveals a deep awareness of the impossibility of distinguishing between guilt and innocence, for we are all so in any given moment. So he concludes: ‘The monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the U.S.S.R become clear to all’ (Bukharin 1938, 779).

On a collective level, it is telling that the Great Terror was very much a public experience, and not the shady and covert program that it is so often depicted to have been. It involved mass participation, with widespread belief in the guilt of the victims. Everyone was encouraged to inform on and denounce anyone suspected of sabotaging the economy, of acting on behalf of a foreign enemy, or of efforts to undermine the government. Popular enthusiasm for the self-cleansing was almost universal. It is de rigueur to decry such mass brutality, but this reaction misses the collective nature of the old communist process of self-criticism. Here, the self-examination for failings in fostering the cause becomes a collective venture that seeks to strengthen the body through purging what is harmful. But such purging threatens to become a never-ending process, not because one needs to find continual scapegoats for failure to achieve the goals of the cause, but because the closer one draws to the goal, the more frantic become the forces of evil. Perhaps the most astute awareness of the awful nature of evil comes from Stalin himself. At a plenum of the party’s central committee in early 1937, Stalin observed:

We must smash and throw out the rotten theory that with each forward movement we make the class struggle will die down more and more, that in proportion to our success the class enemy will become more and more domesticated … On the contrary, the more we move forward, the more success we have, then the more wrathful become the remnants of the beaten exploiter classes, the more quickly they turn to sharper forms of struggle, the more mischief do they do the Soviet state, the more they grasp at the most desperate means of struggle (Daniels 1993, 261).[9]

The more grace is apparent, the more desperate becomes the devil – or so would the same theory be expressed the traditional theological terms. However, here we need to be careful, for Stalin still tends to externalise the threat, glimpsing its full possibilities only fleetingly. The first half of the text identifies the dialectic of struggle: tensions and conflicts do not cease the closer one nears a desired goal; they become even more exacerbated. The easy option at this point would be to speak of external, international threats, which were real enough. And often he linked the internal struggle with outside forces, seeing the former as a fifth column. However, the real struggle is collectively internal, with the beaten ruling class redoubling its efforts to defeat the communist cause. But here he stops. He does not go the next step and ask from where the threats within the party come, why it is that prevarications, doubts, resistance, seem endemic even to the party faithful. Such a statement reveals a nascent theoretical elaboration of what I am calling a materialist doctrine of evil, but it still stops short.


Boer, Roland. 2013. Lenin, Religion, and Theology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bukharin, Nikolai. 1938. Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ Heard Before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, Moscow, March 2-14, 1938. Moscow: People’s Commissariat of Justice of the USSR.

Cohen, Stephen. 1980. Bukarin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888-1938. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniels, Robert Vincent, ed. 1993. A Documentary History of Communism in Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev. Burlington: University of Vermont Press.

Figes, Orlando. 1998. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. Harmondworth: Penguin.

Furr, Grover. 2011. Khrushchev Lied. Kettering: Erythros.

Gellately, Robert. 2007. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Koestler, Arthur. 2006 [1941]. Darkness at Noon. New York: Scribner.

Larina, Anna. 1994 [1988]. This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin’s Widow. Translated by Gary Kern. New York: W. W. Norton.

Lenin, V.I. 1917 [1964]. “The State and Revolution.” In Collected Works, 385-497. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2008. Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. Translated by Marie-Ange Patrizio. Rome: Carocci editore.

Resis, Albert, ed. 1993. Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Roberts, Geoffrey. 2006. Stalin’s Wars: From World Qar to Cold War, 1939-1953. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Service, Robert. 2004. Stalin: A Biography. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Tucker, Robert C. 1988. Stalin as Revolutionary: 1879-1929. New York: Norton.

Tucker, Robert C. 1990. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941, New York. Norton.

Volkogonov, Dimitri. 1994. Lenin: A Biography. New York: Free Press.

Werth, Nicolas, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, and Stéphane Courtois. 1999. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[1] The definition of a successful communist revolution is one that defeats the counter-revolution and then has the peace to begin the process of constructing socialism.

[2] After the bullets missed Lenin on 14 January, two found their mark on 30 August. One hit his arm and the other was embedded in his neck and spilled blood into a lung. They were fired by Fanya Kaplan, the Socialist-Revolutionary, and they left Lenin clinging to life. Even here, external forces seemed to have played a role, with the British agent, Robert Bruce Lockhart, engaged in inciting a plot to overthrow the Soviet government due to its efforts to seek a eace treaty with the Germans (Cohen 1980).

[3] It was officially announced in an article called ‘Appeal to the Working Class’, in the 3 September 1918 issue of Izvestiya. A couple of days later the Cheka published the decree, ‘On Red Terror’.

[4] By comparison, in China one of the most telling instances of counter-revolutionary brutality of the Guomintang before 1949 was the practice of shooting, without question, any woman found with natural feet and short hair. The assumption by the forces of Chang Kai-Shek was that any such woman was obviously a communist.

[5] Roberts tellingly demolishes this psychological argument, developed most fully by Robert Tucker (1988, 1990). For Roberts, it was more of a political paranoia, not entirely unjustified by the forces ranged against the communists (Roberts 2006, 17-18).

[6] For many Western Marxists, these purges have become the litmus test of romantic socialism. In this light, Stalin ceases to be a Marxist at all, betraying the revolution due to chronic paranoia and for the sake of his own aggrandisement. It also enables many Western Marxists to dismiss the Russian Revolution as a successful revolution, leading to the curious position that the true revolution is yet to come. I have argued elsewhere that this is clear manifestation of the bewilderment and resentment by Western Marxists that a successful revolution has not happened in the West (Boer 2013, 207-9).

[7] For instance, even the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR at the time, Joseph E. Davies, found the trials fair (Larina 1994 [1988]). By contrast, at the time the trials marked either the conversion to Trotskyism or the break with communism completely by many Western communists. The debate continues today, with some repeating Cold War denunciations and others tracing the profound effect, on the reception of Stalin, of Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ at the Twentieth Congress of Communist Party of the USSR in February 1956 (Service 2004, Furr 2011, Losurdo 2008). It is worth noting that the trials fooled the High Command of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, who believed that the Red Army had been weakened by the loss of many of its leading commanders. This faulty assessment led them to believe that they would take Moscow in short order, only to find that the Red Army had been renewed and strengthened (Roberts 2006, 15-19).

[8] The trial and Bukharin’s behaviour has perplexed observers ever since. Apart from the dismissal of the confessions as coerced, some have suggested it was the last service of a true believer in the cause, that he used Aesopian language to turn the trial into a one of Stalin himself, indeed that he subtly pointed to his innocence while ostensibly admitting guilt. These interpretations not so much misread the material, but they manifest at a formal level precisely the tension at the heart of a materialist doctrine of evil (Cohen 1980, Larina 1994 [1988], Service 2004, Koestler 2006 [1941]).

[9] Stalin repeated this observation often at the time, as Molotov recalls (Resis 1993, 254, Roberts 2006, 18).

Soviet War Memorial – Treptower Park, Berlin

One of the more stunning parts of east Berlin is the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. It’s the main memorial to the Soviet taking of Berlin – yes, it was the Soviets who captured Berlin and put an end to Hitler’s efforts. 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the battle are buried here.

2013 April 135 (Spreeradweg)a

Designed as a whole by Yakov Belopolsky, each of the gates leads you into the central avenue:



Your eyes are directed to the towering statue of young soldier, holding a German child while his sword rests on a broken swastika:


What grabs me are the 16 stone sarcophagi, one each for the republics of the USSR. There are 8 on each side, flanking the central area.

2013 April 140 (Spreeradweg)a

Lenin’s here, the collective embodiment of and inspiration for the troops:

2013 April 147 (Spreeradweg)a

Stalin too is everywhere:


Or rather, direct quotations from the man are on each of the sarcophagi. On one side they are in German, on the other in Russian:

2013 April 162 (Spreeradweg)a

Why? The ‘victory of 1945 in Europe was above all his’ (Roberts). Churchill and Roosevelt may have been dispensable and the war still won. Not so Stalin, for he was ‘indispensable to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany’. So, at the most important of war memorials in Berlin, Stalin is there to stay, inscribed in stone.

And so are plenty of communist symbols:

2013 April 172 (Spreeradweg)a

2013 April 173 (Spreeradweg)a

So if you have some time in Berlin, forget the crappy tourist spots, the sausages and the beer (well, maybe not the beer), and get yourself to Treptower Park. There’s plenty of others there as well.

What is the proper role of reform?

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).