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Marx and Lenin's views contrasted

Lenin stood for state capitalism and argued that socialist democracy is in no way inconsistent with the rule and dictatorship of one person. Was Lenin a Marxist?

Marx and his co-worker, Engels, consistently argued that socialism (or communism, they used the terms interchangeably) could only evolve out of the political and economic circumstances created by a fully developed capitalism. In other words, production would have to be expanded within capitalism to a point where the potential existed to allow for "each [to take] according to their needs". In turn, this objective condition would have created the basis for a socialist-conscious majority willing to contribute their physical and mental skills voluntarily in the production and distribution of society's needs.

With the extension of the suffrage, Marx claimed (in 1872) that the workers might now achieve power in the leading countries of capitalism by peaceful means. Given the fact that socialism will be based on the widest possible human co-operation, it need hardly be said that Marx consistently emphasised that its achievement had to be the work of a majority.

Again, given their understanding of the nature of socialist society, Marx and Engels saw socialism essentially in world terms: a global alternative to the system of global capitalism.

In the very first sentence of his monumental work, Capital, Marx wrote that "the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as a vast accumulation of commodities". He then went on to define the nature of a commodity in economic terms as an item of real or imagined wealth produced for sale on the market with a view to profit.

Marx claimed the wages system was the quintessential instrument of capitalist exploitation of the working class. He urged workers to remove from their banners the conservative slogan of "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work" and to inscribe instead "Abolition of the wages system!" Throughout his writings, he repeats in different form the admonition that "wage labour and capital are two sides of the same coin".

Marx considered that nationalisation could be a means of accelerating the development of capitalism but did not support nationalisation as such. On the contrary, he argued that the more the state became involved in taking over areas of production, the more it became the national capitalist.

Marx saw the state as the "executive committee" of a ruling class. In a socialist society, he affirmed, the state, as the government of people, would give way to a simple, democratic "administration of things".

Marx's vision of a socialist society can be fairly summed up as a world-wide system of social organisation based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by, and in the interests of, the whole community.

In other words, a universal classless, wageless and moneyless society wherein human beings would voluntarily contribute in accordance with their mental and/or physical abilities to the production and distribution of the needs of their society and in which everyone would have free and equal access to their needs.

Lenin's distortions
Post-Czarist Russia was a backward poorly developed and largely feudal country where the industrial proletariat was a relatively small minority. To suggest that Russia could undergo a socialist revolution (as Lenin did in 1917) is a complete denial of the Marxist view of history. Indeed, following the news of the Bolshevik coup, the Socialist Standard (official organ of the Socialist Party of Great Britain) wrote:

"Is this huge mass of people, numbering about 160 million and spread over eight and a half million of square miles, ready for Socialism? Are the hunters of the north, the struggling peasant proprietors of the south, the agricultural wage slaves of the Central Provinces and the wage slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity for, and equipped with the knowledge requisite for the establishment of the social ownership of the means of life? Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place or an economic change immensely more rapidly than history has ever recorded, the answer is 'NO!'"(August 1918).

Lenin persistently rejected the view that the working class was capable of achieving socialism without leaders. He argued that trade union consciousness represented the peak of working class consciousness. Socialism, he affirmed, would be achieved by a band of revolutionaries at the head of a discontented but non-socialist-conscious working class. The Bolshevik "revolution" was a classic example of Leninist thinking; in fact it was a coup d'état carried out by professional revolutionaries and based on the populist slogan, "Peace, Land and Bread". Socialism was not on offer, nor could it have been.

It is true that Lenin and his Bolsheviks wrongly thought their Russian coup would spark off similar revolts in Western Europe and, especially, in Germany. Not only was this a monumental political error, but it was based on Lenin's erroneous perception of socialism and his belief that his distorted conceptions could be imposed on the working class of Western Europe which was, generally, better politically organised and more sophisticated than the people of Russia.

Probably for practical purposes – since no other course was open to them – Lenin and his Bolsheviks could not accept the Marxian view that commodity production was an identifying feature of capitalism. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the production of wealth in the form of commodities was the only option open to the misnamed Communist Party. Commodity production continued and was an accepted feature of life in "communist" Russia, just as it is today following the demise of state-capitalism in the Russian empire.

Back in 1905 Stalin, in a pamphlet (Socialism or Anarchism), argued the Marxian view that "future society would be . . . wageless . . . classless . . . moneyless", etc. In power the Bolsheviks proliferated the wages system making it an accepted feature of Russian life. Wage differentials, too, were frequently greater than those obtaining in western society. Surplus value, from which the capitalist class derives its income in the form of profit, rent and interest became the basis of the bloated lifestyles of the bureaucracy. A contrasting feature of state-capitalism and "private" capitalism is that, in the latter, the beneficiaries of the exploitation of labour derive their wealth and privilege from the direct ownership of capital whereas, in the former, wealth and privilege were the benefits of political power.

There is a wide chasm between the views of Marx and those of Lenin in their understanding of the nature of socialism, of how it would be achieved and of the manner of its administration. Marx sees socialism as the abolition of ownership (implied in the term "common ownership"). His vision is a stateless, classless and moneyless society which, by its nature, could only come to fruition when a conscious majority wanted it and wherein the affairs of the human family would be democratically administered. A form of social organisation in which people would voluntarily contribute their skills and abilities in exchange for the freedom of living in a society that guarantees their needs and wherein the poverty, repression and violence of capitalism would have no place.

Lenin's simple definition of socialism is set out in his The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It (September 1917): "Socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the whole people". Lenin knew that he was introducing a new definition of socialism here which was not to be found in Marx but claimed that there were two stages after capitalism: socialism (his new definition) and communism (what Marxists had always understood by socialism: a stateless, classless, moneyless, wageless society). However, so new was this definition that other Bolshevik publications of the same period still argued that "socialism is the highest form of social organisation that mankind can achieve".

Marx would obviously have concurred with the latter claim but, as has been shown, would have rejected completely the suggestion that socialism had anything to do with nationalisation or that it could be established over the heads of the working class.

Obviously Lenin was being consistent with his "nationalisation" theory when, in Left-Wing Childishness (May 1918) he proclaimed the need for state capitalism. It is true, of course, that the situation in Russia left the Bolsheviks no alternative to the development of capitalism under the aegis of the state. The fact is, however, that the concept of state capitalism is wholly consistent with Lenin's misunderstanding of the nature of socialism. State capitalism achieved a permanent place in the Russian economy and Communist Party propaganda exported it as being consistent with the views of Marx.

The contrast between Marx and Lenin is demonstrated most strikingly in Lenin's view of the nature and role of the state. Whereas Marx saw the state as a feature of class society that would be used by a politically-conscious working class to bring about the transfer of power and then be abolished, Lenin saw the state as a permanent and vital part of what he perceived as socialism, relegating Marx's abolition of the state to the dim and distant future in communism while in the meantime the state had to be strengthened. The Russian state and its coercive arms became a huge, brutal dictatorship under Lenin, who set the scene for the entry of the dictator, Stalin.

That Lenin approved of dictatorship, even that of a single person, was spelt out clearly in a speech he made (On Economic Reconstruction) on the 31 March 1920:

"Now we are repeating what was approved by the Central EC two years ago . . . Namely, that the Soviet Socialist Democracy (sic!) is in no way inconsistent with the rule and dictatorship of one person; that the will of a class is at best realised by a Dictator who sometimes will accomplish more by himself and is frequently more needed" (Lenin: Collected Works, Vol. 17, p. 89. First Russian Edition).

This statement alone should be enough to convince any impartial student of Marxism that there was no meeting of minds between Marx and Lenin.

Russia, after the Bolshevik coup and the establishment of state capitalism became a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship. The fact that that its new ruling class exploited the working class through its political power instead of economic power meant that the workers were denied the protection of independent organisations such as trade unions or political organisations.

The western media, particularly oblivious to the implications of communism even as defined sometimes in their dictionaries, frequently drew attention to the poverty of the Russian workers. Conversely, and correctly, it also drew attention to the privileged and opulent lifestyles of the "communist" bosses. The same media, apparently without any sense of contradiction, was telling the public in the western world what the "Communist"-controlled media were telling workers in the Russian empire: that Russia represented the Marxian concept of a "classless" society.

The litmus test of the existence of "communism" for western journalists was recognition of the claim, by a state or a political party, that is was either "socialist" or "communist". Similar claims by such states and parties to be "democratic" was never given the slightest credibility. It might be argued that those who rejected the "democratic" claim knew a little about democracy whereas they appear to know nothing whatsoever about socialism.

The contradiction between the views of Marx and Lenin set out above relate to fundamental issues. Inevitably, however, they formed the basis for numerous other conflicts of opinion between Marxism and Leninism. In the light of these basic contradictions, it is absurd and dishonest to claim that there is any compatibility between Marx's concept of a free, democratic socialist society and the brutal state capitalism espoused by Lenin. Journalists, especially, should be in no doubt about the interests they serve when they promulgate the lie that Marxism or socialism exists anywhere in the world.

Richard Montague