Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 6, 2014

Socialism and democracy

Filed under: democracy,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Karl Marx in the offices of The Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie (“New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy“), a German daily newspaper he published between June 1, 1848 and May 19 1849.

Four days ago I received a query from a Latin American journalist:

Dear Louis:

I am an editor at a leading newspaper in Quito, Ecuador, and I will like to make a you one question (if you agree of course) for an article I am trying to write, after the international leftist meeting that was held this week here in this city.

My piece is about, how is it that the new and modern left is so tolerant with authoritarian regimes. Castro, Chávez and even Correa have been very sympathetic with leaders such as Lukashenko, Mugabe and Kaddafi.

So my question is if you think that this is part of a stalinist legacy that has not been thrown away by the left, despise all the horrors that the stalinist regime was responsible for?

All the best

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public response as follows.

This is a very complex question. To start with, Hugo Chavez is something of a paradox on the question of democracy. Keep in mind that the entire premise of “21st Century Socialism” rested on the assumption that Stalinism tainted the 20th century version. In a speech to the World Social Forum in 2005, Chavez stated that “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” On the other hand, in the very same speech he said, “Today’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s… there is new Russian nationalism, and I have seen it in the streets of Moscow… there is a good president, Mr. Putin, at the wheel.”

That, in a nutshell, is the contradiction we see on the left. There is acknowledgement, at least verbally, that Stalinism was unviable. If you keep people repressed there is always a tendency for them to do as little as possible to keep the system going and to look for ways to game it. Stalinist societies rot from within. Even if there is pressure from imperialism, the bigger threat is always the spiritual and psychological disaffection of workers and farmers.

But what good does it do for Chavez to make this observation while at the same time nodding in approval of Vladimir Putin? It is obvious that there would be an affinity with Putin since he superficially had the same agenda as Chavez, namely to use the revenue from petro-exports to improve the conditions of life for the average citizen. Keep in mind that toward the end of his life, Chavez had moved away from the notion of building socialism entirely. His model was less and less based on what are commonly referred to as “communist” states but Western European social democracies, which are simply welfare states resting on capitalist property relations. So naturally he would tend to see all petroleum exporting states with a populist but repressive regime and enemies of his own enemy—the USA—as partners. This meant that Russia, Iran, Libya and Syria were hailed in the Venezuelan press as forward-looking societies even though their jails were filled with political prisoners.

You are absolutely right to understand this as rooted in Stalinism. The belief that socialism could be built in a single country was in contradiction to the core Marxist belief that socialism had to be built on a global scale, just as was the case with the social system that preceded it: capitalism. Despite the fact that the USSR was an enormous country with all of the resources advanced industry would require, Leon Trotsky warned that the system would collapse unless revolutions triumphed in Western Europe: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.” (I should add that Trotsky used the term “dictatorship” in the technical Marxist sense of a particular class dominating the state rather than what exists in Zimbabwe et al.)

With Trotsky’s defeat, the USSR tended to see other countries less as candidates for social transformation and more as potential allies for “socialist development”. If there was a clash between the workers in a capitalist country and their rulers who were seen as favoring Soviet interests, the workers got short shrift. When Greek workers took up arms against a fascist dictatorship, Stalin decided to sell the workers out rather than jeopardize the friendly relations he had with FDR, who was amenable to allowing Eastern Europe to become a “buffer” against invasion. This was not a socialist foreign policy but a global chess game in which a struggling people were sacrificed as a pawn.

This is the same thing that is happening today even though capitalism has returned to Russia. It would probably make more sense to speak of neo-Stalinism since Vladimir Putin would be the last person on earth to favor a socialist Russia. If Stalin saw Ukraine as a kind of outpost dedicated to the defense of the USSR, not much has changed under Putin, except that the social relations being defended are based on private property rather than state ownership. Hitler invaded Russia in order to smash collective ownership while the West never had any such intentions. Why would it if Exxon is invited in as a partner in some of the biggest oil exploration deals in history, including drilling in the most ecologically sensitive areas?

It is understandable why some on the left would be anxious to smear every protest movement in the Russia/China orbit as an imperialist plot. There is ample evidence that Washington will exploit every movement to see its own agenda advanced. When I was involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was incensed about reports that the NED was funding parties opposed to the FSLN. That explains why some are so anxious to write off the Hong Kong protesters as tools of the USA. But revolutionary politics is not based on algebraic formulas. You have to be able to understand that sometimes X can be equal to Y and not equal at the same time. In other words, Hegel is a better guide to social reality than Aristotle, the father of formal logic.

In places like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia, the protest movements have both progressive and reactionary tendencies. To some extent, this is a function of the socialist left having lost its moral authority. In Ukraine, with the CP being an unabashed supporter of Russian domination, is it any wonder that ordinary people topple Lenin statues? Those statues, I should add, never had much to do with defending socialism. They were like George Washington statues in American parks, empty symbols of national sovereignty.

Very often when people begin fighting for freedom, they bring certain prejudices along with them. Although it would be best if a social movement had a crystal-clear agenda based on a combination of Enlightenment and socialist values, there is often a mixture of past, present and future that can be confusing to the onlooker. For example, there are many Syrians who have fought against the Baathist dictatorship who are for Sharia courts, a symbol to many on the left of a feudal past. But when you keep in mind that the judicial system in Syria was rigged to favor the Baathists, the temptations of Sharia law become more understandable. When the Irish rose up against British colonialism during WWI, the same kind of confusion cropped up on the Marxist left. Why support a movement that seemed to be tainted by Catholic dogma? Lenin tried to answer this question in an article titled “The Irish Rebellion of 1916”:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

It is regrettable that so few on the left can understand many grass roots movement today in the same light.

In order for the left to regain its moral authority, it has to once and for all stop functioning like the CP did in the 1930s, least of all when Russia and its allies lack even the economic justification that once existed for that type of “border guard” stance. Unless socialism and socialist politics are once again synonymous with democracy, the left will have nothing to say to young people fighting for social change.

When you stop and think about, Marx and Engels entered politics in the same spirit as the Syrians who marched in the streets of Homs and Aleppo in early 2011 for an end to a system that used torture and murder to enforce neoliberal rule. They were deeply involved with the movements for democracy in 1848 that challenged the old feudal order, the counterpart to Baathist rule in those days.

August Nimtz, an American scholar, wrote a book titled “Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough” that reaffirmed their commitment to democracy that has unfortunately been forgotten by much of the left. In an interview with Socialist Project this year, Nimtz explained what his goals were in writing such a book:

As you probably know from my writings, I prefer to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. And for this question there’s no better place to begin with than their Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that sharply distinguished itself from the programmatic stances of other socialist tendencies in its position that the prerequisite for the socialist revolution was the democratic revolution—the necessity “to win the battle for democracy.” In related pronouncements clarifying their views they wrote that, like the Chartists in England, the German proletariat “can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal.” And in no uncertain terms the Manifesto, in four successive locations, made clear that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal”. Nevertheless, they maintained to the end that the means to that goal was the conquest of the “bourgeois revolution.” When a critic charged in 1892 that they ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels demurred: “Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.”

Ultimately, this statement might serve as a litmus test for the left. Although I am too old to get involved with organizing a movement, this pro-democracy orientation would be at its core. I have not only seen the USSR collapse because of dictatorship, I have also seen the socialist organization I belonged to for more than a decade collapse as well. The right to speak freely and act freely is as natural as breathing. When it is taken away, we suffocate, as does society. Ultimately, as Nimtz points out, democracy is a means to an end: the creation of a new world based on a just and rational economic order. Anything that stands in the way has to be rejected. It is not even a problem if this is a minority viewpoint today because in the long run it is the only one that can succeed.



  1. A great article. One of the problems on the left is its inability to understand class relations in a world of multiple social identities and an abandonment of public services, something I addressed here, prompting angry responses:


    The left has failed to engage this synergy between market choice and personal identity, another residue of Stalinism, whereby any form of personal identification beyond a traditional working class one is considered a deviation.

    “Keep in mind that toward the end of his life, Chavez had moved away from the notion of building socialism entirely. His model was less and less based on what are commonly referred to as “communist” states but Western European social democracies, which are simply welfare states resting on capitalist property relations.”

    Actually, this was one of his goals from the inception. After the 2002 coup, he said, in interviews with Aleida Guevara, that his initial objective was a kind of “Third Way” politics, synonymous with Blair and Schroeder, but that dogged US resistance made this impossible, radicalizing him. Admittedly, Chavez had a tendency to say contradictory things over the course of his life.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 6, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

  2. Richard Estes, Thanks for your generous reply to my comments in a recent post. As for socialism and democracy, where might one find a more democratic principle than the Manifesto’s “association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”?

    On Chavez, I found him to be a populist demagogue who squandered his country’s temporary oil wealth on popular vote-garnering welfare programs but failed to establish an enduring progressive social infrastructure. As for his successor, Maduro–what a stiff!

    And as much as I appreciate Engels, I will strongly disagree with his late-in-life statement that a “democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” There was no internal justification for this declaration, and I believe Engels was playing to his English audience.

    Engels’s comment seems to endorse a mechanical, “stages” regimen for the history humans make, and I reject any position that implies we must have a bourgeois revolution before socialism becomes possible.

    However, Engels’s statement does suggest a very important reality. Socialist revolution cannot germinate in sterile, prohibitively hostile soil, and the horrific conditions surrounding the Russian Revolution made the creation of socialism there impossible. And then came Stalin.

    The United States in 2014 possesses the conditions Engels deemed necessary to a socialist movement, yet nothing is happening–nothing at all. An aware revolutionary consciousness and spirit could change matters using bourgeois democracy as capitalism’s Achilles heel, but the globalization of capitalism has manufactured a systemic entrapment of humanity within capitalist institutions, values, and mindset. Thus America has quietly surrendered to capitalism’s dark night and has become the hegemonic enemy of the continuation of the human species.

    Perhaps I’ll get lucky and die of old age before having to endure the 2016 political campaign.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 6, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

  3. Let us say that income taxes were very progressive, so much so that a family could not have an after tax earned income of more than 200,000 dollars a year. Let us also say that taxes on capital gains and interest and dividends was even more progressive so that a family could not earn more than about 100,000 dollars a year total in these types of income. Then let us add that inheritance taxes were so progressive that a person could not inherit more than one point two million a year, but the first 250,000 would be tax free. At that point would it really matter who actually had formal ownership of the means of production?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 6, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

  4. 2. Chavez was indeed a populist demagogue, a `left’ Bonaparte and a bit of a buffoon.

    Anyway, just as Trotsky and Lenin rescued Marxism with the Theory of Permanent Revolution and the April Thesis so must we rescue Trotsky from the neo-Stalinist centrist bureaucratised sects that did so much damage to him during the Cold War. The Lenin quote about revolution is a great place to start. The sects did not quite take seriously Trotsky’s observation that a revolution, yes a revolution, would be required to unseat the bureaucracy and whilst the popular revolution that did eventually unseat the bureaucracy ended in disaster it was not the place of Trotskyists to side with that bureaucracy and its tanks against that uprising. Rather it was our job to give these movements a programme for political revolution and bring the working class to the head of the movement. The same in Hong Kong and China today. Yes the restoration of capitalist rule in China will be a disaster for the international working class but that will be the inevitable result of Stalinist rule in any case. We must support the student mass movement but make sure that the multi-millioned working class masses are bought into the frey to head it. In fact Western billionaires and Chinese Stalinism is singing from the same hymn sheet on this. They are scared stiff of the potential in China.

    Comment by David Ellis — October 7, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  5. I should have added to the end: `and so are our neo-Stalinist chums.’

    By the way neo-Stalinism makes Stalinist cynicism look positively progressive. Where Stalinism used to subordinate the working class movement to the national bourgeoisie and sell out the revolution that way the neo-Stalinist cut out the middle man and simply support the incumbent tyrant’s efforts to smash all opposition.

    Their perspective for the world is not to stand with the forces of world socialist revolution to transcend rapidly rewinding US-sponsored globalisation as capitalism degenerates but to stand with the rewinding. They see the path to world peace being the return to power balancing between five or six major powers above the heads of the seven billion. This is why they support Putin as some sort of anti-imperialist when in fact he is an imperialist. They have rebranded black white and white black. But they should be careful what they wish for when they wish for the curbing of US hegemony so-called because in fact multi-polarity is the shortest route to war and a New Dark Ages. In bipolarity the major powers never confront each other directly but only through proxy whilst in mutli-polarity, even if for no other reason than there are too many variables to take into account, the major powers engage in direct confrontation. There can be no period of peaceful power balancing and no new golden age for capitalism. It is kaput. Now we choose sides: world revolution or a regime of global barbarism.

    Comment by davidellis987 — October 7, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

  6. The comments so far exclusively focus on our “red” problem: the absence of socialist movements in our global capitalist world. But what of the looming “green” catastrophes awaiting us all? Capitalism’s organization acts as a cancer of all forms of life–human and nonhuman. Can anyone think of a means by which a global system of production for profit could possibly be ecologically sustainable? Does anyone think capitalism will give up its fossil fuels?

    I’m red-green, as I see that human ecology must be modeled after the ecological organization revealed by the new sciences of life’s organizational relations. Life’s relations are “communist” relations, and the original Marxists would have jumped all over these new sciences and developed revolutionary organizing practices decades ago. But Karl and Fred are dead, and Marxism as a living theory seems to have died along with them.

    Engels at Marx’s graveside: “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force.” Might it be time for a red-green resurrection of Marxism? Karl and Fred say yay.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 7, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

  7. “Capitalism’s organization acts as a cancer of all forms of life–human and nonhuman. Can anyone think of a means by which a global system of production for profit could possibly be ecologically sustainable? Does anyone think capitalism will give up its fossil fuels?”

    Be careful. Todd is going to come by and call you a conspiracy theorist. 🙂

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 7, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

  8. Why should I? Albeit based only on that one little bit of writing, Joe seems to be able to express better than you, Richard, the notion of structure in capitalist society.

    Comment by Todd — October 7, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

  9. At that point would it really matter who actually had formal ownership of the means of production?

    If I understand this (but how hard is it?), society under the conditions described would fund the satisfaction of social needs out of the heavily taxed incomes of the rich. Thus in order to go on being funded, society would not only permit but actually require the rich to go on being rich, and capitalists to continue as the owners of the means of production, and yet forbid them to enjoy most of the perquisites. How could this be “permanent” even in a merely political sense? With the existing ruling class still firmly in control of the economy, how could they fail to fight back and regain their lost privilege or win the sympathy of the lesser taxed who might nevertheless sympathize with their “betters.” Who would of course claim with superficial plausibility to be the long-suffering creators of wealth?

    We once had 90% taxation of the highest incomes in the U.S.–far short of the 100K income restriction—and post Reagan, etc., this is regarded with horror by many who would benefit from its reinstatement.

    In order for what the Right calls “confiscatory taxation” to provide a basis for socialism, wouldn’t it have to be really confiscatory? And to support that meaningfully, wouldn’t a mass movement be required with worldwide socialism as the explicit goal, not just income limitation in one country?

    Comment by Susan Barton — October 9, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

  10. “If I understand this (but how hard is it?), society under the conditions described would fund the satisfaction of social needs out of the heavily taxed incomes of the rich. Thus in order to go on being funded, society would not only permit but actually require the rich to go on being rich, and capitalists to continue as the owners of the means of production, and yet forbid them to enjoy most of the perquisites. How could this be “permanent” even in a merely political sense?”

    While I agree, let me suggest one abstract possibility. If capitalists determine that their most exalted objective is control through the internalization of social and cultural values, then they might well accept this in order to ensure themselves of attaining it. Of course, this is an old Baudrillard, structuralist kind of approach, recall how in 1976 he observed that European capitalists would accept the PCI and the PCF into the governments of Italy and France if necessary for the preservation of capitalism.

    Similarly, capitalists might willingly relinquish much of their income if power was preserved. Indeed, under this scenario, they might even become more powerful as they could justify it and their decisions as necessary for the greater good of an egalitarian society. The public could even exalt them as the reason for their good fortune.

    The ability of capitalists to expropriate leftist values and even socioeconomic systems is a subject that is not often discussed. As someone familiar with anarchism, and its emphasis upon decentralization, I sometimes fear that capitalism (and especially the middle class) will seize upon the more horizontal aspects (as opposed to the economic ones) of anarchist practice as a means of survival. The fact that so many middle class kids were drawn to Occupy on the basis of horizontalism has both a positive and negative aspect for this reason.

    Other left practices and programs probably have the same potential, and should be evaluated in this context as well, with the extreme exception of extermination of all capitalists, and, even there, there is the possibility of substitution.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 9, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  11. Dear Susan,
    Let me try to give a quick off the cuff answer to your question. My first thought is to bring up a question of my own. In a country in which a 1800 square foot home can cost 500,000 dollars in some cities what is wealthy? The intent of my proposal is to make it possible for some people to be well off, or comfortable. The amount of money that it would take to achieve that would vary depending on where we are talking about. Another thing to consider is that many people have incomes that vary a lot over a period of years. Once upon a time, you might remember there was such a thing as income averaging.
    Why is it my intent that some people be allowed to live comfortably while others might be struggling? Well first of all I am not a perfectionist.
    Second of all the idea that everyone deserves to have the same income I find absurd. Not every job is equal so why should salaries be equal?
    Shouldn’t crummy jobs like garbage pickup be paid more than say a movie camera man?
    So while I disagree with the assertion that there will be rich who will keep on being rich I think I could say that there will be those who are comfortable who will keep on being comfortable. i do not see a problem with that. The problem with the current situation is those with high salaries then get an even greater advantage by being able to benefit from capital gains and dividends and such. My proposal would greatly limit those advantages.
    Third it is my intent to end the huge advantages that come with the ownership of capital. If the really big advantages are taken away then perhaps we could have a honest discussion about whether worker, or public, or government. ownership will really give us the advantages that some claim, or these alternatives will just result in the workers of one factory then trying to get over on the workers of all the other factories.
    I have read about Parecon. It was six or seven years ago. I seem to recall that the proponents of Parecon claim that there will be no motive for the workers of one factory to try to gain an advantage over other factories but I am still sitting on the fence about the correctness of this view. Furthermore I am not convinced that the workers of a factory are the legitimate owners of a factory, society is. Yet that leaves practical questions about command and control that do not exist when a firm is privately owned.
    Of course I expect the current owners, who would lose a lot either way, to fight back. I expect that when faced with the choice of being allowed to live on one hand and even keep a villa and a speed boat or on the other hand be introduced to a hamburger grinder that they will chose to live.
    Of course as a practical matter the only place that they would probably face such a choice is in the recesses of my mind.
    As a theoretical point I think that if it were possible to implement these types of tax policies there would be a shift in the economy to meeting the needs of the vast majority of the people rather than the needs of the top two percent of the people. So I would think that a family which only earned 50,000 dollars a year in such a system would see their money go further. Of course I am not an economist so I have no studies that I can quote or no sources from esteemed leftist economists that I can point to that would back up my wishful thinking It just seems to me that when housing prices drop because almost no one can afford to pay 300,000 dollars for a house that rents will´also fall and that should help those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
    I recognize that this situation could put many people, who do not deserve it, to be in trouble with their banks. As their income from real estate plummets they may not be able to pay off their loans. I do not know what if anything should be done about this. Susan, what do you think? Are all landlords capitalist scum? If not what about Bangsters?

    Well, before I pushed Post Comment I remembered one thing that is important and that is a part of my proposal that I forgot to mention, which is that these tax rates be brought to these levels over a 10 or even 20 year period to give people a chance to adjust to the new way of doing business. Another part of the proposal would be laws to prevent capital flight which would be enforced by punishments so severe that future historians will say that I made Vlad the Impaler look like Gandhi. People who try to cheat a reasonable person like myself deserve to feel the fires of hell burning their feet.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 10, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

  12. In 1970 the top one percent of Americans took home nine percent of the country’s income while in Germany the top one percent took home 11 percent of the country’s income. Forty years latter the top one percent of Americans took home 20 or was it 25 percent of the country’s income while in Germany the top one percent still took home 11 percent. That shows that without even taking any radical action policies can be implemented that create a kind of stability. An clearly unfair stability, but, none the less the bad situation in Germany has not gotten worse.
    What if the top one percent got 4 and half percent of the nations income and it would not rise would you or your someone you know be irate about the country’s income disparity? One thing is crystal meth clear no one is worth the amount of money that they are getting paid if they are in the top one percent and that one percent is taking home 20 percent of the nations income.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 12, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

  13. Re: Comment number 12. I have since seen a more recent report the disputes the 11% share of income that the top 1% are said to be taking home in Germany. The report claims the top 1% in Germany are taking in as high as a percentage as the top 1% in the USA. I can no longer remember many of the specifics supporting this assertion except that the top 1% is hiding much of thier income. I do have to wonder if they could actually be better at it than the top 1% in the USA. I read this report in German perhaps 5 or 6 months ago and no longer remember what the source was.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 25, 2016 @ 9:45 pm

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