This is an introduction to a series of essays on the Meaning of Marxism. The entire series can be found here.
What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie. All the social-chauvinists are now “Marxists” (don’t laugh!).Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution
It is always in the interests of bourgeois scholars to take Marxism as expressed in a rigid and dogmatic manner, because such dogma is then easily shown to be false when it is tested against experience.Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution
About a century ago, Vladimir Lenin was defending the validity of Marxism as a revolutionary method for advancing the project of communism against attacks from anarchists and opportunists. Central to Lenin’s claim is that Marxism is vulgarized, implying intentional distortion, because it is a revolutionary theory. The bourgeoisie recognizes the revolutionary power of Marxism, and vulgarizes it, intentionally or not, to blunt its revolutionary edge. We now find ourselves in the same position as Lenin, a century later, where Marxism has been distorted and vulgarized even further than it was in his time. Of course, Lenin’s observation, that the ideas of any revolutionary leader are vulgarized in the attempt to blunt their revolutionary edge, has now happened to him. Like Marx, Lenin is now subjected to the same moralistic claims about the USSR, where conservatives claim that Marx is complicit for the ‘crimes’ of socialist countries. Likewise, conservatives also claim that Lenin laid the seeds for ‘Stalinism’. Democratic socialists, who vulgarize Marx, claim that he, and now Lenin, would have been horrified to see what the USSR became because of the actions of a single person. Marx and Lenin were good and democratic, but Stalin was evil and authoritarian, ruining everything, according to this logic. Obviously, any Marxist knows that individualistic explanations of historical phenomena are fundamentally idealist and goes against the grain of historical materialism, where history is defined by class struggle and structural contradictions in a mode of production.
Like every revolutionary before us, we find ourselves in a historical moment in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the acceleration of economic and political crises; a moment where we seem to be rapidly approaching the gigantic fork in the road of modern history: socialism or barbarism? Will we finally see global communist revolution, or will we lose once and for all to the capitalist vampire? We have our optimists who, having seen increased revolutionary consciousness and practice both in the Global South (Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Nigeria, and so on) and within the imperialist countries (uprisings in the US, increased strikes and labor activity throughout the West, the yellow vests in France), believe we’re on our way to a socialist future. We also have our pessimists who, having seen the rise of Fascism throughout the world (US, Italy, France, Eastern Europe, Brazil, and so on), believe barbarism is imminent. We find ourselves in a position where the future of humanity is dependent on revolutionary action and ruptures within the global paradigm. The big question is: how can we organize and create revolution?
Posing this question brings us back to Marxism, and the vulgarization of it. The bulk of the major revolutions of the 20th century, mainly the USSR and China, as well as significant revolutionary actions which ultimately failed in creating revolution, like the BPP Party in the US, centered Marxism in both their theory and practice. Very schematically, revolutionaries used Marxism to understand their society’s mode of production, and then identified which classes in their society would be revolutionary or reactionary. They then tested this knowledge through political practice, and learned how correct their theory was. The USSR identified the proletariat as the primary revolutionary class, and the Bolsheviks considered the peasantry a class ally. In China, the communists realized the peasantry could be a revolutionary class after conducting a Marxist analysis of their society, and they were proven right. The BPP, after conducting a Marxist analysis of the US in their time, identified the lumpenproletariat as a primary revolutionary class. Unfortunately, the BPP was destroyed by the US police state before it could really test their ideas in the form of revolutionary practice. Identifying revolutionary and reactionary classes, and the tactics needed to organize and create revolution, is specific to every social formation. Even if all class struggles are necessarily particular, there could be general lessons we can abstract from each, and this is the task of any Marxist.
The problem is that Marxism is contemporarily discredited and lazily disparaged in academia, throughout the ISAs, and even amongst the ‘left’. I have seen communists hesitant to identify as Marxists. If Marxism was central, or almost central, to successful revolutionary activity, then why is it so discredited today?
There are many explanations for this phenomenon. One is that the failure of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary sequence to progress towards communism, and instead towards a revisionist mixed economy, turned leftists off from identifying as Marxists. In Continuity and Rupture, J Moufawad Paul argues that many abandoned Marxism-Leninism once it could no longer overcome its own limits, which were exposed in the 90s after the fall of the Eastern Bloc and China opening itself up to capitalist investment. He then argues that Postmodernism and its adjacent tendencies (post-structuralism, post-Marxism, deconstruction, etc) emerged in the theoretical void left by Marxism-Leninism in the academy, and this void only existed because of the ‘defeat’ of Marxism. Another explanation comes from Martha Gimenez in a Marxist feminist critique of materialist feminism, where she argues that postmodernism and its adjacent ideologies are popular because they discredit Marxism. Academic institutions and publishing companies, themselves owned and operated by members of the bourgeoisie, are more inclined to publish anti-Marxist versions of materialist inquiry. The discrediting of Marxism was a part of the class struggle in knowledge in the mid to late 20th century in response to the developing threat of the USSR and China, both explicit Marxist projects, even if both deviated towards revisionism in the end. We are now feeling the effects of this ideological class struggle, even while we’re still in the struggle, and this is seen to the point where even communists are uncomfortable calling themselves Marxists.
It is essential to not only defend Marxism, for the reasons mentioned above, but to also apply it. Every communist has the obligation of applying a Marxist analysis to their social formation, and then using that knowledge to intervene in the class struggle.
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