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.

On the completion of reading Stalin

I have at last completed my careful reading of the published works of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Stalin). On the way, I have found that few actually do so, for the attitudes to Stalin seem to be set. This is especially so among the many on the Left, for whom Stalin is the great betrayer. The assumption is that he was not a socialist at all, so one may conveniently neglect any serious engagement. The problem is that one simply misses the rich history of socialism in power, with all of its mistakes and achievements.

I have also found that the name ‘Stalin’ generates a profound polarisation, between veneration or demonisation. The latter is usually the case, whether one is engaging with the closed circles of thought in European Marxism, liberals who seek to find yet more reasons to condemn Stalin while engaging in ‘objective’ research’ and even in China, where one would expect a somewhat different approach and interest given the long Chinese experience of socialism in power. On my part, I am more interested in the dynamics of such polarisation rather than falling into its trap.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of reading Stalin and posting items from his works is the way preset assumptions concerning Stalin influence how my own perspective is understood. Simply because I have been intrigued by his works and posted quotations that reveal unexpected dimensions of his thought, some have assumed that I am a ‘Stalinist’, whatever that means. (Stalin himself merely identified as a Marxist-Leninist.)

Above all, my interest in Stalin emerged as I became increasingly drawn to understanding the experiences of socialism in power. This began when I was studying Lenin and I found the time after the October Revolution the most significant. Lenin was the first who was able to say – from direct experience – that working towards a revolution and achieving power was the easy part. Far, far more complex and fraught with problems was the exercise of power. Stalin too found this a reality, and Mao soon found that Lenin’s observation was correct. The strange thing is that many on the Left avoid dealing with this topic. This is a profound shame, since there is a wealth of experience from which to learn.