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New International Socialism series from Haymarket Books
The real Marxist tradition

December 12, 2003 | Page 10

TO KARL Marx, and generations of socialists after him, socialism wasn't about state ownership or party loyalty, but the self-emancipation of the working class. Haymarket Books has produced a new series dedicated to reprinting important books in this tradition. PAUL D'AMATO reviews them.

THERE ARE all kinds of misconceptions about what Marxism is, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that there seems to be so many different "Marxisms," some of which completely contradict one other.

One response is simply to define Marxism as whatever calls itself Marxist. For pro-capitalist ideologues, this means linking Marxism with the horrors of Pol Pot and Stalin. For "academic Marxologists," it means cashing in on the latest Marxist fad.

And untangling this mess can't be achieved by quoting Marx and Engels as scripture. As Engels noted, Marxism is "not a dogma, but a guide to action." The foundation of Marxism is its class perspective. It's a worldview that seeks to understand and change the world from the standpoint of the working class.

Socialists prior to Marx devised visions of a better world, but Marx and Engels put socialism on a scientific footing. "Communism is for us," wrote Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, "not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things."

That "real movement" for Marx and Engels was twofold. First, capitalism's colossal development of the productive forces and the creation of a world market eliminated the scarcity that was the basis of class inequality. Second, a new class--the class of wage workers--had emerged, which, unlike previous exploited classes, could free itself only by abolishing class society altogether.

Marx and Engels' shorthand for socialism was the "self-emancipation of the working class."

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SELF-EMANCIPATION IS the thread that connects all four books in the newly published series by Haymarket Books--"The International Socialist Tradition," which includes What Is the Real Marxist Tradition? Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism, Marxism and the Party and Party and Class.

In What Is the Real Marxist Tradition? John Molyneux demonstrates that the "Marxism" of Social Democracy, Stalinism and third-worldism share a common thread in that they deny the centrality working-class self-emancipation. In this sense, there are many so-called Marxisms that represent not the interests of the working class, but the middle classes, and in some cases, even of the ruling classes.

The Social Democratic or reformist trend saw socialism as the conquest of political, i.e., state power by representatives of the working class on a purely national plane. This electoral approach transformed the working class from the agent of its own emancipation into a passive supporter of elected parliamentary representatives. Social Democracy turned its back on working-class internationalism in 1914 when its most prominent leaders sided with their national ruling classes over the First World War.

Two of Marx's most important discoveries--that the working class "cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machine and wield it for its own purposes" and working-class internationalism--later had to be revived by revolutionaries like Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky.

Stalinism, likewise, replaced the two central tenets of Marxism--working-class self-emancipation and internationalism--with diametrically opposite ideas--that socialism was state ownership and "socialism in one country."

Third world variants of Marxism, Maoism and Guevarism, looked to peasant armies led by middle-class urban intellectuals to achieve national independence. They borrowed from Stalinism the identification of socialism with state control of the means of production and "national development."

What also stands out in this variant of "Marxism" is its substitutionism--the idea that the guerrilla army or the party acts on behalf of the mass of the peasantry and the working class.

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IT'S POPULAR to argue that the failure of the Russian revolution is inherent in the nature of Marxism--in other words, that Russia proves that revolutions fail. But "to deduce Stalinism from Bolshevism or from Marxism," writes Trotsky in "Stalinism and Bolshevism," an appendix to What Is the Real Marxist Tradition? "is the same as to deduce, in a larger sense, counter-revolution from revolution."

Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism is a series of essays that develops Trotsky's argument. The best essay, Chris Harman's "How the Revolution Was Lost," argues that the failure of the revolution to spread to Europe, combined with a devastating civil war inside Russia, lead to a collapse in production and the decimation of the working class. "What was to be the fate of the revolution," writes Harman, "if the class that made it ceased to exist in any meaningful sense?"

Private capitalism wasn't restored and property remained nationalized, but the working class lost power, and a new bureaucracy emerged which mouthed Marxist rhetoric but behaved like a new ruling class. It was driven by its position in the international constellation of states to act as a national capitalist class, i.e., to build up heavy industry and Russian armaments by squeezing the surplus out of Russian workers and peasants.

State capitalism arose not out of some failure of Russia's revolutionaries, or some incontrovertible historical equation (revolution=tyranny), but because socialism, as Marx pointed out long ago, cannot be built in conditions of national isolation and poverty.

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ONCE IT'S established that Lenin was poles apart from Stalinism, then it becomes possible to take a fresh look at Lenin's most important contribution to Marxism--the revolutionary party. This is the subject of two of the books--Party and Class, a collection of essays by Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman and Leon Trotsky; and Molyneux's Marxism and the Party.

Quoting Marx, Molyneux argues that communists are nothing more than "the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties...that section which pushes forward all others." This idea of the party as the most militant, revolutionary section of the working class became Lenin's departure point.

He broke from the Social Democratic conception of the party as representing the class as a whole, as Harman points out in his essay, "Party and Class." The party is not a vanguard because it is "pure." Only sects are proud of their purity. The party--which must be built, not declared--is an organization of the most politically experienced and advanced workers, not something standing apart or over the working class.

Without building such a party, the working class can and does rebel, can and does win substantial but temporary economic and social gains. But if the most revolutionary elements of the class are not organized to raise the political level of the working class as a whole, hand in hand through everyday struggles, then revolution cannot win.

The ruling class has a far easier time finding its leaders in time of crisis. The working class must forge them through years of painstaking work. Duncan Hallas, in his article "Toward a Revolutionary Socialist Party," notes that the rise of Stalinism and fascism, followed by the revival of reformism in the post-war boom period, "reduced the authentic socialist tradition in the advanced capitalist countries to the status of a fringe belief."

The task therefore is to rebuild real revolutionary parties that can once again challenge capitalism effectively. "An organized layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created," argues Hallas. "Or rather it has to be recreated."

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