The socialist and communist idea has long inspired the search for a better way of life.* Many things that are today taken for granted from Social Security to unemployment insurance come out of this quest. Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate its impact. This applies not only to day-to-day working-class struggles but also to the realm of ideas. Socialist thought has reconfigured the ideological landscape, altering ways of thinking and doing while reshaping culture and science. Dialectics revolutionized the social sciences, Marx’s political economy upended the study of wealth and work, as his science of class struggle politics redrew the world’s borders. Many commonly accepted concepts like the responsibility of government to care for its citizens, social equality and special compensatory measures to overcome past discrimination, arise directly out of the socialist tradition.
Even in the aftermath of the implosion of the early 1990’s and the ensuing ideological collapse and confusion, the communist ideal endures. Rather than abandoning its prospect – one deeply rooted in capitalism’s ongoing crises – people continue to seek alternatives: millions believe another world is still possible.
Yet the very ambiguity of this hope is suggestive. It would be naive to ignore doubts about the viability of the socialist alternative. How to answer these doubts is a central question. This involves not only socialism as practiced but also as imagined: questions abound about the doctrine that gave rise to the social revolutions of the 20th century. This is doubly so because Marxism-Leninism sets a very high internal standard: the criteria of truth are in practice.
Some have suggested that the theory of scientific socialism was “correct” but for mistakes in implementation.
Does the practice suggest the theories of Marx and Lenin were misapplied or was something inherently wrong with them? How these questions are placed is important. Some, for example, have suggested that the theory of scientific socialism was “correct” but for mistakes in implementation. However, “correct” ideas do not exist outside history in a realm unto themselves waiting to be applied or misapplied by fallible and frail men and women. To postulate the existence of a correct theory that lies only in wait of implementation without evaluating the world-view itself in light of the rigorous tests of the historical experience itself would betray more than a hint of idealism: the concept that ideas precede human activity or have an independent existence. Again, theory must be confirmed by practice.
Yet, the relationship between theory and practice must not be construed mechanically as a simple scientific formula: the application of a thesis, its test and corresponding result. A more useful way to pose this issue is as a problem of history. It is not simply a question of truth or falseness, success or failure, but how true or how false, how successful or unsuccessful at a given moment in history. Truth travels relatively through time. Viewed from this prism, Marxism’s “truth” was born out by its early successes, its “untruth” by the more recent defeats. Both represent an aspect or moment in socialism’s real history, a history that continues to unfold.
With each generation believing themselves to be in possession of truth there appeared a certain one-sidedness in interpretation.
What is forgotten in considering this real history is that as a newly emerging science, Marxism is still evolving. Each historical moment represents a stage in its development. All too often, each moment was thought of as complete. Still more, it may not have been realized the extent to which each moment shaped the problems the new science was forced to deal with, which in turn, shaped how the doctrine came to be defined, with each definition seen as comprising the essential truth.
With each generation believing themselves to be in possession of this truth there appeared over the years a certain one-sidedness in interpretation and presentation of the new world-view. By one-sidedness is meant an unbalanced, mechanical, narrow juxtaposition of one aspect of Marxism over another or seeing one side of the doctrine as comprising the doctrine in its entirety. One-sidedness is a tendency to view things statically separate and opposed instead of seeing them in their interrelation as dimensions or aspects of one another.
This one-sidedness has been a persistent problem throughout socialism’s history. Initially it arose as a problem of growth. In the heady days of its youth, after settling accounts with other left trends scientific socialism quickly became a dominant ideological force. Early successes were so sweeping that Lenin, charting Marxism’s growth, boasted of “complete victory” as the main philosophical expression of labor at the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
Different sides of Marxism come to the fore or retreat according to the conditions of life.
At the same time however, weaknesses began to be felt. The “strength” of scientific socialism’s wide reach was also accompanied by a “weakness” represented by a lowering of the theoretical level. As the doctrine rapidly spread, Marxism was interpreted in what Lenin described as “extremely one-sided and mutilated form.”
What began as a growing pain may have become more pronounced through the years culminating in a full-blown ideological trend with the consequence that socialist partisans couldn’t see the whole forest for the trees inhabiting the great ideological continent uncovered by Marx.
When considering the issue of one-sidedness it is crucial to bear in mind that Marxism is a living science. As a living doctrine, Marxism grows and declines, shifts and changes in response to the class battles of which it is part. In other words, it has different aspects, or sides that come to the fore or retreat according to the conditions of life. A period of upsurge and growth will lay stress on the side of Marxism that focuses on politics, strategy and tactics, united front work. A period of repression or a serious defeat may cause despair and disarray, triggering a serious internal crisis of Marxism such as was experienced in the early 1990s in wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In such a period, another dimension of Marxism that lays stress on class fundamentals, fighting liquidationism, etc., becomes more pronounced. In the mid-to-late 1990s as the labor movement adopted a greater class-struggle orientation, the balance shifted again. The anti-globalization, peace and democratic movements took greater initiative, reopening space for left ideas and thinking. Precisely, because it is a living science, one or another “side” will advance or retreat. What is appropriate for one period may not be for another.
It is crucial to respond to these ebbs and flows. Mistakes resulting in stagnation, inactivity and isolation are the result of an inability to shift from one or another. These mistakes may assume a “left” or “right” form. One pits the class struggle against the fight for democracy, a second evolution over revolution, a third elevates one form of struggle over all others. Each seems to raise now this element of the philosophy, now that tactic to the level of principle.
An outline of Marxism’s internal history would be useful in establishing the various phases of its self-conceptualization and in what ways one-sidedness has appeared. As is well known because of Marx’s economic work, aspects of the science – especially philosophy – take the form of aphorisms as in the Thesis on Feuerbach. Tracing the emergence of different concepts and additions – for example it was G. Plekhanov who coined the phrase dialectical materialism – would help illuminate how it was rounded and developed: or revised.
There have been many attempts to separate different parts of the philosophy: Marx from Engels, Lenin from both.
Each attempt is important and has political implications. We are familiar with attempts to separate different parts of the philosophy as well as its developers: Marx from Engels, Lenin from both. Similarly well known are the various schools of Marxism that have emerged. One accepts historical materialism while denying political economy; another accepts political economy but refuses dialectics, a third adores dialectics but will have nothing of Marx’s theory of surplus value. Interestingly, few accept the theory of scientific socialism.
Lenin made a studied efforts to overcome this one-sidedness. In his The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, is presented perhaps the first balanced summary. He posits the philosophy as an “integral world conception” adding its three sources, German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism, which are also its component parts. He describes Marxist philosophy as “matured philosophical materialism,” attaching equal weight to dialectical and historical materialism as well the concept of socialism premised on worker’s class struggle.
Lenin’s balanced formulation stands in sharp contrast to earlier and later Marxists’ stress on one or another side of the world-view while leaving out important parts. G. Plekhanov for example in his important book The Fundamental Problems of Marxism defines the world-view as consisting of philosophical materialism and political economy, and neglects to include the category of scientific socialism. Plekhanov’s concept seems one-sided in so far as it neglects one of the principal legs upon which Marxism stands. Lenin corrects this omission. At the same time however, it might be said he too does not succinctly conceptualize in summary form just what the doctrine is. A rendering of component elements, even placing them together, does not necessarily complete the picture or say what the picture is of. Viewed as a whole, is the new world-view simply the sum of its parts or is the whole greater than the sum? This question becomes particularly interesting in light of Lenin’s own notes on dialectics from the Philosophical Notebooks: “The cognition of a whole and the division of its various parts is the chief question of dialectics.” Thus, it appears Lenin’s own cognition of the Marxist “whole” appears a little shy. As Antonio Gramsci pointed out in place of the various approximations a more balanced restatement that comes from the heart of the world-view might be in order. The point is not what is “correct” but what is truer, more balanced and closer to life.
Has one-sidedness contributed to alterations first, from the side of “orthodoxy” (Plekhanov) and then from Bernstein’s revisionism; and secondly, from the side of the Stalin leadership?
Consideration should be given to whether this one-sidedness has contributed to a series of alterations of Marxism. First, from the side of “orthodoxy” (Plekhanov) and then from others we are more familiar with (Bernstein); and secondly, from the side of the Stalin leadership up to an including other leading Party collectives ending with the collapse of the USSR. Lenin could be seen as a correction of the double revision, marking a return to original paths.
The ideology that emerged out of the CPSU as well as what became known as Euro-Communism, then, might be understood as contiguous “left and right” currents born of the same one-sided ideological impulse. Keeping in mind that old thinking habits die hard, a review of what the CPSU called Marxism-Leninism is in order. To a great measure, much of the communist movement relied on its stilted and wooden texts and while largely indigestible its influence should not be underestimated. At the same time, it must be recognized that Marxism-Leninism is a worldwide movement extending far beyond the CPSU with a rich and varied experience. In this regard, Lenin’s contribution must be considered as original and lasting, marking not only a return to authenticity but also a development along new lines. Still socialism’s experience in the 20th century became quite diverse and others have made significant contributions as well. Some countries have in fact begun the practice of adding the designation of the “Thought” of their national leader to account for these contributions. One wonders how far this naming process can go and what its future impact will be.
As the communist idea traverses the long climb, from unreason to reason and superstition to science, the need for a more objective categorization is making itself felt
Another issue arises: scientific socialism was born into a world filled with superstition, religion and other forms of pre-scientific thought. As it traverses the long and difficult climb, from unreason to reason and superstition to science, the need for a more objective categorization is making itself felt. Naming a science after its discoverers may not contribute to its development. To avoid one-sidedness care should be given to embracing, critically reviewing and assimilating the Marxist legacy in its entirety. Needless to say, this includes China.
Finally, it is worth considering how one-sidedness impacted the Communist movement in the US. The history of Communist Party shows an ongoing tension in balancing class and all-class democratic struggles like those involving racial and national minorities, women’s equality or LGBT rights.
Variously, one issue is placed over and against another. On the one hand, owing to the influence of Lenin’s general theory of democracy and its stress on championing the racially and nationally oppressed, stellar contributions were made in theorizing the national question and advancing the struggle for equality. Similarly, Communists have without doubt played significant roles in fighting for women’s equality. On the other hand, from the ill-advised Black Belt thesis, to a reluctance to support the Equal Rights Amendment, to the glacier-like slowness in warming to gay rights, the Communist movement has had difficulty in responding with agility and deftness to democratic struggles. Why?
The problem is complex. It is difficult to establish a causal link between ideology and the practical political choices made in the course of daily life. Indeed, even in the presence of a more balanced view, political life does not occur in a vacuum. Ongoing pressure from the right tends to push away from maintaining consistent working-class positions. Added to this are the pernicious influences of racism, sexism and homophobia, all of which combine in different ways.
There has been a persistent under-appreciation and suspicion of the struggle for democracy: to see it as detracting from the class struggle.
Notwithstanding these realities, there has been a tendency to not see class and democratic struggles in their mutual relation. There has been a persistent under-appreciation and suspicion of the struggle for democracy: to see it as detracting from the class struggle, a trend Lenin himself battled. At the same time there has been misapplication of race and nationality as was the case with the self-determination and certain interpretations of the African American centrality thesis. In fact one form of one-sidedness (seeing only class) breeds another (elevating race over class). A patent sectarianism that only sees class is cause in the first case; a movement away from consistent class positions and drift toward left nationalism is consequence in the second.
Yet another dimension of one-sidedness may be seen in the approach to ideology itself or the lack thereof. Because on inadequate attention to ideological work, policy runs the risk of substituting for theory. Again the problem is complicated. Because of the relationship between theory and practice, Party policy does assume theoretical form. At the same time, policy is shaped by the art of the possible: what is politically feasible, unfortunately is not always what is right, nor is it necessarily what is “correct.” What emerges as policy due to the demands of inner unity is often a series of compromises.
Additionally, the problem appears from another side: for new theory to be created areas lying outside the realm of the agreed must be engaged. It is in the clash between agreed on practice (policy) and ideas outside its realm that new theory is created. This applies to thinking both within and without the Communist Party.
Important contributions are being made from writers and activists not organized in political parties. In fact in the US a majority of those within the socialist and communist tradition do not belong to the organized left.
The main forms of the battle of ideas today do not occur in the realm of high theory between isolated groups of intellectuals.
These issues raise important questions about the very approach to the creation of ideology and its role in the class struggle. The main forms of the battle of ideas today do not occur in the realm of high theory between isolated groups of intellectuals, but rather in the arena of broad popular culture: film, literature, music, television, the Internet, etc. It is precisely here that the left must be engaged.
This becomes important when considering where the main emphasis should be directed: at intellectuals or others engaged in ideological production? Or should it rather center on the broad working-class left? The answer to this question goes to the very heart of our discussion. Because it is so important, the question might be sharpened as follows: who should lead?
It should be recalled that implicit in the founding of Marxist-Leninist parties was concept of working-class leadership and developing a new sources for ideological production. Not only must the “educators to be educated,” but new educators themselves must arise from the ranks of working class. How to achieve this remains largely unsolved. Owing to the manner and time in which socialism was introduced into the world this concept of working-class political and ideological leadership has faced a troubled history. As is well known, before the introduction of the public school in the late 19th century workers rarely had the opportunity to obtain a higher education. As a result, intellectuals were largely formed from the ranks of the middle and upper classes. It is no mystery, then, why they were first to articulate the socialist vision. However, from the time of Marx to this day, they tend to dominate the working-class movement ideologically and politically. What are the roots of this problem?
Part of an answer can be traced to Lenin’s idea that socialist ideology had to be introduced to the working-class movement from the outside: that left to itself the working-class movement would only spontaneously develop trade union consciousness. An aspect then of the role of the party was to interject socialist ideas. It is not difficult to imagine how this formula could lend itself to a paternalistic relationship between workers and leaders, particularly if those leaders come from other class strata.
When viewed as a problem of history growing out of that particular country at that particular moment “bringing socialism in from outside” may well have been the only approach possible. Considered as a general principle applicable across the board, however, it is at best highly problematic and at worse deeply mistaken.
On the other hand Lenin’s notion should not be understood narrowly: his point was that unless introduced by conscious forces, (that is, a working-class revolutionary party) all struggles would invariably fall short of realizing the need for social revolution.
A central task of the Communist movement today is to renew the fight for working-class leadership at all levels, including ideologically.
Given the general educational and cultural level of working-class people in the US, there is absolutely no reason for this to continue. For these reasons a central task of the Communist movement today is to renew the fight for working-class leadership at all levels, including ideologically.
Significantly, notwithstanding certain problems this fight for working-class ideological leadership has been one of the hallmarks of the US communist movement. So much so that it has contributed to the growth of anti-intellectualism in its ranks. It would be extremely shortsighted not to make a correction. Fighting for working-class leadership should in no way preclude deep relations with academic workers and building unity between workers and intellectuals.
A final note: these issues must be approached forthrightly as skeptical listeners will not be convinced by knee-jerk defensiveness and religious-like appeals to Marxism’s eternal truth. One cannot ignore the problem of dogmatism. It has ossified thought and turned what was once a living doctrine into a stale and lifeless thing and remains perhaps the biggest obstacle to reviving the communist idea and rekindling its rigorous creative spirit. While doing so it must be borne in mind that as a theory of class struggle, Marxism can only be conceived of polemically, in perpetual struggle with its ideological adversaries. One cannot ignore the problem of revisionism. At the same time, there is a need for boldness: As a theory of dialectical materialism, Marxism can only be understood critically, as an unceasing quest for truth through practice, driven now forward, now backward by the struggle between opposites, their mutual negation, their quantitative transformation and qualitative change.
It is hoped these critical notes will play a modest role in moving the discussion forward.
Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA (2019-). He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.
This article was re-edited and published by CPUSA.