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What is the real Marxist tradition?

By Paul D'Amato | April 29, 2005 | Page 13

MARX DEFINED socialism as the "self-emancipation of the working class." What he meant by this phrase was simply that socialism could not be achieved through the acts of an enlightened few acting ostensibly on behalf of the exploited and oppressed.

To achieve real change, workers would have to do it themselves en masse. This was true not only because ruling classes only respond to mass action, but also because only through mass, revolutionary action could people accustomed to being ruled transform themselves into people capable of taking the reigns of society into their hands.

Struggle changes consciousness, Marx argued, and makes the mass the oppressed and exploited fit to rule. Moreover, Marx argued, workers could not simply take over the "ready-made" state machine, which was created to ensure the rule of capitalism. Workers would have to create new organs of democratic power and dissolve the old state machine.

Every major divide that has taken place historically in the socialist movement revolved in some way around this central question of self-emancipation. In the late 1890s, for example, the controversy over "revisionism" in the German socialist movement--what we now call "reformism"--centered around a disagreement over whether socialism could be achieved through peaceful, gradual reform based on socialists capturing seats in government, or through mass working-class revolutionary action.

Those who favored gradual reform were in fact, as Rosa Luxemburg argued at the time, not fighting for a peaceful road to socialism, but merely for the "surface modification" of society. The German Social Democratic Party's parliamentary and trade union leaders who favored this "road" tended to see mass action as something to be used sparingly, and to be kept within the bounds of the "acceptable," usually under the excuse that "rash" action could jeopardize the survival of the party and the unions by "provoking" the right.

The starkness of the alternatives became clear in Russia in 1918, when the supporters of the reformist line, who had throw their political weight behind the German government's war effort, made every effort, including the use of armed force, to destroy the leaders of the left who supported workers' power.

The second great divide in the socialist movement emerged as a result of the defeat of the Russian Revolution at the hands of Stalin's bureaucracy in the 1920s. Stalin, as personification of a new rising bureaucracy, gained ascendancy on the basis of the inner economic weakness and international isolation of the Russian revolution.

Whereas revolutionary leaders Lenin and Trotsky had stressed the inability of Russian workers to achieve real socialism without the aid of revolution in Europe, Stalin developed the "theory of socialism in one country."

In essence, Stalinism, in diametric opposition to the Marxist tradition, identified socialism not with workers' control of society (which no longer existed in Russia after the 1920s), but with a nationalized economy under top-down, one-party rule. In this, Stalinism bore a similarity with reformism, in that it viewed socialism as something achieved from above through the state, rather than through working-class self-emancipation.

What made Stalinism particularly damaging to the world socialist movement is that it promoted ideas contrary to working-class internationalism under the guise of socialism. It was able to do so based upon the enormous prestige of the Russian Revolution, and later, the Soviet Union's victories over Hitler in the Second World War.

And it was able to maintain its prestige because the revolution degenerated from within rather than being defeated from without, leaving a bureaucracy that retained the language of socialism and Marxism to justify its own position as a new exploiting class but transforming that "Marxism" into a hollow state ideology rather than a guide to workers' struggles.

The practical results were terrible. The mass Communist Parties, which had the support of millions of workers in Europe and elsewhere, were bureaucratically subordinated not only to Stalin's new bowdlerization of Marxism but became subordinated to Russia's foreign policy interests. In the next article we'll look at the results of these developments.

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