Given that the North Atlantic Left is situated well ‘before October’ (unlike China), its various branches have struggled to get across a convincing account of current ills. Thus far, it has been the Right that has managed to do so very well. Think of the UKIP, the French National Front, the Danish People’s Party, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

So what is it about Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn that seems to have changed the situation somewhat?

Before proceeding, let me get a couple of obvious points out of the way. First, by Left and Right I mean not the major political parties – they are really part of the grey managerial strata. Indeed, they are desperately keen to brand Left and Right as various forms of populism. Further, the situation is made worse by the woeful framework of bourgeois democracy.

Not the most auspicious context. But given this situation, what is to be done (as Lenin put it)?

To begin with, the Atlantic Right has pushed out a xenophobic message, targeting anyone who could be painted as a threat: Muslims, Eastern European workers, Middle Eastern workers … Couple this with a kind of perverse nationalism, in which jobs, welfare, and so on were for genuine citizens and not foreigners. Clear, easy account, that has obviously appealed.

But matters became a little more interesting in the Dutch and French elections, where Wilders and especially Le Pen began appropriating positions from the Left. They targeted workers whose jobs are disappearing due to automation, the EU’s free movement of labour, if not globalised labour markets, and the complicity of governments in such processes. This worked less well than they hoped. Part of the reason is that the message became mixed and the newer positions did not sit so well with their original message. (At this point, we need to leave aside the silly argument from some intellectuals that the working class is reactionary.)

Enter Sanders and Corbyn: old-style moderate progressives who were initially written off as hopelessly outmoded and headed for electoral disaster. But they have defied pundits.

This is where Lenin’s arguments more than a hundred years ago are relevant. The debate at the time turned on the illegal and legal branches of the Party. Some were for abolishing the illegal arm and becoming part of the electoral process (with the Duma); others wanted nothing to do with a flawed parliamentary system.

But Lenin argued in another way. Yes, parliamentary or bourgeois democracy is a pretty bad system. In fact, we want to abolish it as soon as we gain power. However, socialists should be involved in the process so that we can present our message to a wider public and through official media. Every opportunity should be used to make sure we present this message as clearly as possible.

Of course, Corbyn and Sanders cannot seriously be considered socialists. But what they are doing is airing some positions in very public ways that suggest a socialist direction. They are opening up ground that the career politicians thought they had shut down ages ago.

So perhaps, within the framework of bourgeois democracy, Corbyn and Sanders might be seen as acting at Lenin’s behest despite themselves.




I am finally working through the many photographs from the ‘red tour’ filming from last November (for the MOOC), and came across these from Ruijin, where the first soviet was established in the early 1930s. This is also where the absolutely crucial Ruijin ethos was developed: make sure that people have adequate food, clothing and shelter, give them security and they will become revolutionaries.

These photos were taken in Ruijin, Jiangxi province. Clearly, the Marxist tradition follows through:





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.

More snippets as I near the end of my reading of Stalin’s works – not a task too many take on, assuming all manner of positions without reading what the man himself wrote (and edited). The first concerns ‘Bolshevik grit’ – strong nerves and stubborn patience:

These people, apparently, forgot that we Bolsheviks are people of a special cut. They forgot that neither difficulties nor threats can frighten Bolsheviks. They forgot that we had been trained and steeled by the great Lenin, our leader, our teacher, our father, who knew and recognised no fear in the fight. They forgot that the more the enemies rage and the more hysterical the foes within the Party become, the more ardent the Bolsheviks become for fresh struggles and the more vigorously they push forward. (Works, vol 14, p. 74)

The idea of ‘socialism with national characteristics’ is usually attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement concerning Chinese characteristics. And it is often dismissed as an excuse to do anything, whether Marxist or not. But the idea actually stems from Lenin and Stalin. In 1917, Lenin wrote:

Our business is to help get everything possible done to make sure the “last” chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help by the presentation of our programme, by making clear its national character, its absolute accord with the interests and demands of a vast majority of the population (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 60).

The main theoretician of the ‘national question’, Stalin, went a step further in 1927:

In its content the culture of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. which the Soviet Government is developing must be a culture common to all the working people, a socialist culture; in its form, however, it is and will be different for all the peoples of the U.S.S.R.; it is and will be a national culture, different for the various peoples of the U.S.S.R. in conformity with the differences in language and specific national features (Stalin, Works, vol. 10, pp. 72-73).

In 1939, Mao Zedong wrote:

A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used. If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 6, p. 539).

So by the time Deng Xiaoping made his famous statement in 1982, he was following in this tradition:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 2)

Not according to the man himself, 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)

Stalin may have played a major role in fostering the veneration of Lenin, especially in the context of struggles with Trotsky over Lenin’s heritage, but he was dead against veneration of himself.

Stalin and Lenin 02a

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