“[T]he premise of all criticism is the criticism of religion”
(Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
It is impossible to start a text which mentions Karl Marx without evoking a mystical ideological force. It has almost been one and a half century after his death, and his name has been transformed into something which can be bestowed upon a claim to be seen as “more correct”, which has been used by party leadership after party leadership to separate the “orthodox Marxists” from “revisionists”. Karl Kautsky, an important theoretician of the treacherous, bureaucratic SPD (which crushed the German revolution in 1919 despite calling itself a “Marxist” party) was sometimes called the “Pope of Marxism”; his attachment to a supposedly “orthodox” Marxism was used to legitimize his prestige and his political positions.
A few years later, and something confusing happens: a successful seizure of power by the workers in Russia develops into a state of affairs where workers’ are tyrannized over – NOT by reformist bourgeois forces, but by a party still bearing the name of “revolution” and “Marxism” (or, after the term invented by Zinoviev is popularized, “Marxism-Leninism). The world “workers’ movement” is penetrated by the term: Marxism is now the word used by the Moscow (or Beijing, or Albania as splits in Stalinism develop). Simultaneously, several different groups outside of Stalinism also grow: a score of Trotskyist and left-communist groups call themselves “Marxist”; anarchists continue calling themselves “anarchists”.
Reformists, Stalinists, leaders who dominate their organizations and stifle any real critical thought – they have all used the term “Marxism”. They’ve all used the term “dialectics”, “materialism”, “proletarian politics” – these terms have been used so much that they are near meaningless to people deep into ideology, and completely meaningless to normal people. This or that leader uses it to mean their own specific “theory”; that student group uses it to describe that action they took. The “idea” of Marxism is not a thing intimately tied in to reality anymore, in the same way that liberalism, fascism, etc., is ideological mystification. And even if this seems to be a contradiction with Marxism, it is our reality:
Is it really out of genuine belief and human sentiment that people in these groups (which constantly make inhuman and impersonal decisions) follow their leadership’s “Marxism”? And what about the Stalinist party member who literally has to believe in this or that theory in order to advance in the party? The theory itself is dominated by material inequalities and forces, in the case of Stalinism literal violence, and in the case of non-governing parties the whims of the leader. In reformism, the theories are influenced by the party and trade union bureaucracy’s short-term interests. Theory is not dominated by human sentiment, but by other forces, which renders it almost fully meaningless.
When theory is something “to be taught”, something already decided and determined, which just needs to be spread, it is alienated; it is not a thing that you can believe in intimately, because it is not an intimate thing: it is an inhuman force which large numbers of people can believe in, but that is ultimately inadequate in touching souls – i.e.: acting to change the very framework that people base their thoughts and beliefs in. When our goal is precisely to combat that sort of social alienation, because it is this sort of social alienation which keeps us in chains, which keeps us not caring for each other, which keeps our societies without any real love, that is so impermissible.
Alienated theory can only produce action as a byproduct; and, while this has huge potential (after all, it was the scene of Kautskyist Marxism that produced the mass movements of workers in Europe), it is not enough in a world where the balance is firmly against us (the mass movements failed and were absorbed by Social Democracy-Stalinism). When we try solving issues of the past, we must absolutely reject presumptions – products of the past which have been idealized and mystified as holy. And only then, when we transcend these presumptions (which is not really a hard thing, when you link it in with reality; it is only hard when rejecting presumptions needs 20 academics to cite your theory) will we return to a hopeful truth.
The idealism and fetishism of Marx has allowed the reformist leaders to continue justifying their posturing with speak of some “prolonged legal struggle”; it has allowed the Stalinist leaders to seize full obedience in their parties despite any opposition – after all, opposition does not truly matter when it accepts the same presumptions as you. In opposition to this, we must remember that Marx himself did not develop into Marxism because he was convinced through “transitional demands” that there was some gain in it; he developed right out of German atheism and the contributions to critical thinking made by Hegel. Had he seen how he’d been fetishized, he would probably paraphrase his “enemy” – Bakunin:
“If [this Marx bloke] really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”
We need to try and remember Marx’s atheism, not because it was made by Marx, but because we need to rethink the very ways in which theory informs praxis, and overthrowing all the fetishes that Kautskyism, the Soviet bureaucracy, Trotskyist parties, and SYRIZA-type formations requires “radical doubt” in the old sense. We also need to remember the atheism of Marx in order to not fall into the very easy trap of just calling out “Marxism” as a term, and thinking that we have solved everything. The appearance of the problem is not its content, and we still accept basic idealist presumptions about theory even if we just replace Kautsky’s insult of “revisionist” with our, anti-Marxist insult of “dogmatic sectarian”.
Marx remains important, as does Lenin – not in the sense that they were enlightened gurus that forged our theories and so on, but in the sense that they were the historic moments which transcended and destroyed previous fetishes and conceptions about politics and human liberation. Ignoring Marx ignores a huge contribution to freedom; it does not mean “liberating the masses” from the fetish of Marx, it just means depriving humans of that logical path towards liberation. Ignoring Lenin does the same thing in other ways: ignoring Lenin’s emancipatory dialectics, his unbelievably advanced ideas on self-determination. The goal is to keep Marx and Lenin without the complex group dancing on their graves:
This is impossible without applying radical doubt.
And what we also probably need when trying to forge a proper idea of what “theory” even is, of what “Marxism” even is, is looking at why we would even care in the first place. Some dream of old, Bolshevik Russia? Anger at the present state of affairs? Or a deep-rooted trust in humans, combined with an indignation at limitations placed on it by today?
Hic Rhodus, hic saltus!
Alienation and the Left
Quite frequently, there is talk of “substitutionism” within Marxist spaces. It is used to describe a certain political tendency that many Stalinist as well as reformist parties fall into, which believes that achieving power for the political party one belongs to (either through force or through entering the apparatus of the state) will result in the working class being represented, and thus eventually in some sort of “socialism” or “communism”. This is a mindset which is very much alive and well. The “Vanguard Party” always represents the class (according to some Maoists, as long as it has right ideas); the power of the party is the power of the class; “democracy” can be kept as a treat in some cases, as long as the party isn’t threatened.
The way Stalinism is justified by many modern official communists is very exemplifying here: sure, “there were excesses” under Stalin, however this was all necessary to maintain “proletarian rule”. “Proletarian rule” is just the rule of the party which claims to be proletarian; whether or not there actually is the free political development of the working class is “a treat”, something that can be saved for “better conditions”. Another example is the faulty view of revolution in Stalinism: the “Vanguard Party” just needs to get enough popularity to seize power, because it already has the right ideas and the plans to “implement socialism”. Proletarian rule, socialism – these are all things “to be decreed” by this or that political party.
And what about reformism? Modern reformists aren’t even real reformists in the Marxist sense, because they don’t want to “reform into socialism”, they just want a few concessions. But even those who dream of transition to some other world (the social forum movement, SYRIZA, socialism of the 21st century…) usually develop the following view: “we need electoral victory, in order to be able to get into government and implement what our platform is”. Interestingly, many Stalinist parties (both in the western and eastern worlds) also acted in this way, doing their best to join their bourgeois governments or “win” electorally in order to “build socialism” – everything from the British to the Indonesian parties are examples.
Of course, all of that is nonsense: not just because the bourgeois state or the bureaucratic elite will never want “socialism”, but also because there can be no socialism – or proletarian rule – without the activity of human beings themselves. Stalinism and Social-Democratic state machineries – or party machineries – operated with orders from above, “party centers”, with theoreticians who were presented as holy and correct, with culture and taboos over-riding the radical hunt for truth. The profitability of the economy, the production of luxury goods – these things were prioritized by the elite, while political dissent was either criminalized or rendered impossible through a totally cultish internal culture.
If the goal of politics is human emancipation from alienation, then politics cannot involve the crushing of humans by bureaucratic machinery – not just because this will result in politics becoming stale and subservient to other interests, but also because it will literally never produce the goal of freedom and free association: communism.
However, can alienation in the left really be reduced to the Stalinist party thinking it can turn Marxism into an academic subject, or to you having to bribe a PASOK member in the civil service in order to transcend red tape?
This is where it would be perhaps less useful to use “substitutionism” as our term of criticism, and analyze things a bit deeper.
Unless we reject the idea of theory altogether, then there will always be a role for an organization in class politics. But if class politics are about the development of a collective of humans to a point where they can become everything (i.e.: seize power and freedom), then how can an organization which crushes and minimizes the humanity of its own members be of any use? When the politics of an organization are all determined “by the center”, when membership in an organization is determined through total or partial agreement with the center, and any dissent allowed is just some temporary thing with the condition that you eventually “learn” (read texts of the center) and adopt the “correct” positions… isn’t this alienation?
“Sect” is a controversial term within Trotskyism, but I would argue that is a ludicrous term to deny the use of. I think the unpopularity of the term is caused by almost a century of conditioning within sects, which has just convinced people that anyone throwing the term around is an anarchist, or just dislikes their particular organization. And yet, literally, how can we deny the existence and operation of sectarian politics? Aside from sects that are pretty obvious cults, pretty much every single “international” is a structure which thinks that its center has already reached “true Marxism” and just needs to “teach it”. The rambles of old men are praised as some intellectual masterpieces, sheerly because these old men are heading the correct group with the correct logo, and because they quote and mention Marx, Lenin, Hegel – even Clausewitz! Alan Woods can just spit out a few self-made conclusions about Ukraine, mention Clausewitz just to dress a very simple point up, and be praised. The SWP in the UK can make little 10-minute videos about Marxism and act like “the” revolutionary party.
This doesn’t mean that we need some “new party”. But the existence of these groups actively fetters the development of critical thinking and of class politics amongst not just leftists, but workers too. When a group is based on mere ideas, then anyone can make incomplete, uneducated comments that align with the group’s ideas; the group’s paper is a stale and ossified mess, and deeper, more critical theory of the group is just focused on critiquing other groups like itself. And whenever critiques of this form of organization are made, the responses are literally identical twins of the Stalinist talking-points: why don’t you make your own party, your arguments are so intellectualist, workers don’t care about this stuff. Workers are not made more human by these groups, no matter how the leadership approaches them (entering labour parties, unions, etc.); they are de-humanized by these groups, reduced to objects who must follow this or that historical aesthetic and writing style. Whereas Lenin wrote in nothing but concrete explanation, these groups are ideological messes.
The de-humanization of the workers by a Trotskyist group ends up in the same way that the de-humanization of the workers by Stalinists ends up in: either repression (in some hypothetical event where a sect seizes power), or unpopularity, or the wrong sort of popularity, where the sect wins over a good chunk workers by slogans, but domineers over them in comically-Stalinist ways instead of speaking the truth to them and acting as “tribunes of the people”, to use Lenin’s term. The goal is some abstract “workers’ state”, defined by formalities (elections, recall elections, etc.) – not a revolutionary process. And this mistake is not some new mistake, despite being heightened by the power of sects in modern Trotskyism.
Throughout the trade union debate in the early 20’s in the Soviet Union, Trotsky saw the Soviet Union as a “workers’ state”, an abstraction, that automatically represented the working class; the enslavement of the unions to the state was thus not a problem. Lenin saw the state in very concrete terms: a bureaucratically-deformed workers’ state. This is not meant to draw some imaginary gap between Trotsky and Lenin: that is perhaps the most unrealistic lie Stalinists ever came up with; I am only mentioning it to prove a point: abstractions, words, “Marxism”, “class party”, “revolutionary tendency” – they mean nothing without backing from concrete reality. And the culture present within Trotskyism where there exists a taboo against criticizing organizations “because they are revolutionary” is a totally alienated viewpoint.
While formally (and concretely – let’s not kid ourselves here: Trotskyism, for all its flaws, has been perhaps the most revolutionary and honest tendency in the world for almost a century) opposing Stalinism, Trotskyism remains partially defined by Stalinism in its opposition to it; the first negation of opposing Stalin has been completed, but this has not yet negated the organizational form that we were trying to escape from when escaping from Stalinism.
In communism, humans will literally live without state secrets, without a cultural icon of Trotsky, or a head of Lenin, watching over them. How can they be liberated when their party is a party basing itself on abstraction after abstraction, and which scoffs at the word “freedom” for being “too idealistic”? Unless our future society bases itself on Marxology (which is impossible, as real human beings (thankfully) don’t care about obscure theories and aesthetics), then our present parties can’t be based on this foolish tyranny of the theorist either. If socialism is not just a condition to be achieved by using the action of the masses, but is the action of the masses, then not only can our politics not involve the crushing of human beings by bureaucratic machines; it also cannot involve the crushing of human souls by bureaucratic machines.
Theory, Democracy, or Freedom?
I want to address a question that I think we have all thought to some extent in the past. Yes, we achieve power, yes, we smash the state and nascent bureaucracy, and so on; workers can all vote, and there are recall elections. What is the driving motor of society, now?
Whether we are in “socialism”, with a fully socially-planned economy and international liberation, or just in a proletarian dictatorship: with the fight against the bourgeoisie and bureaucracy removed, what on Earth drives society forward anymore? What will drive us towards communism?
I think it would be wrong to think that “spontaneity” is enough even under those conditions. Especially in a proletarian dictatorship, but also even in “socialism”, in my opinion, the human soul has literally not experienced freedom yet; it is still smashed by bourgeois forms, political parties and opinions. Pretty much everyone accepts that, even after the revolution, a “vanguard” remains necessary. But what would this vanguard be justified by? What would its actions aim towards? I think answering this is key to answering the question of bureaucratization.
Would it be utopian dreams? I think we should not underestimate this idea – after all, even the Soviet Union had a “Tatlin Tower” planned, a majestic building to signify the victory of workers’ power. Cosmism and dreams of outer space were also linked into the post-revolutionary era, and simpler dreams, like dreams of plenty, of sexual freedom, were present in socialist propaganda for a long time.
However, historically, has this really worked? The Friends of Durruti were, no doubt, some of the most valiant revolutionaries in history, maintaining their position even as the Spanish Republic and CNT-FAI betrayed the proletariat; but would the program of immediate communism help them curb the Republican state, or just hinder their mass appeal? Trotsky and “world revolution” (which I am aware was not his actual program – the Left Opposition had a very elaborate concrete program) was criticized, with the worst venom possible, by Stalin-Bukharin bloc as “utopian”. In harsh conditions, especially after defeats, retreats, and deaths, leftist forces cannot support “progress”, because nobody cares about it! Both Lenin and Trotsky supported the New Economic Policy, i.e.: a retreat to agrarian capitalism, and Lenin’s plans were characterized by moderation.
Even the correct theory and plan for the future means nothing if Stalinist types can control the narrative and slowly build up their own power by appealing to populism. “The left has gone insane! Obviously we need a police force – every serious country has one!” In the name of realism, so many crimes can be committed; keeping ourselves concretely within the sentiments of human beings not only prevents ourselves from becoming tyrants, but also helps in the struggle against bureaucracy. Lenin spoke neither of world revolution nor of socialism, but of maintaining national independence, expanding literacy, and cutting red tape. Not utopianism!
The other possibility is that, no matter what happens, we support some sort of democracy. The problem with that, my opinion, is that it is not a position. Democracy is the way we make decisions; what decisions are made is quite another matter. What they are driven by is also different. Pure democratism doesn’t decide anything; and it is unrealistic (and inefficient) to just “democratize” everything, when things like autonomy might be even more useful. This democracy will be a vague mask, such that bureaucratization might be aided.
And thus, we are left with the last political guide: freedom. Is it not the perfect designation of what communists want to happen after the “commune”, the organic human community, seizes power? We want it to develop the freedom to exist by itself, spontaneously; we oppose things which inhibit that. Opposing big and clunky structures and posing very functional, un-alienated structures is just a part of the development of the collective human subject; seeing structures as a thing to serve us – not an ideologically-mystified “goal”.
This is not just determined through the process of elimination. “Support” for any such mystified goal depends on the combination of genuine sentiments present in humans for liberation and the vile and animalistic instincts which make humans follow authority, or impose it. The material basis of these goals is when a structure which oppresses, which imposes authority, is seized – unconsciously – by workers’ forces: an organ meant to serve the people as their tribune, being turned against them in the same way that the Church was turned against the revolutionary moments of Christianity, or the French state against the moments in the Bastille – after all, are all the states that ever form through the masses (most states which are ”states” in the sense of a permanent body) not deflected struggles, to higher or lesser degrees? In that sense, we can cheekily name everything ranging from the Byzantine Empire to the United States a ”deformed workers’ state”, though only know will certain people realize that the adjective ”deformed” is quite important. It is this deformation and alienation that freedom addresses specifically: not through another alienation, but through the constant unveiling of the truth anew, in opposition to all fetishes.
Self-Determination and Revolution
One of the biggest mistakes that has ever been made by the anti-Stalinist left is, in my opinion, allowing the Stalinist-bourgeois-nationalist bloc to claim the mantle of “self-determination” more than us.
The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is – in many ways – an abstraction at the moment; not because it does not exist, but because it does not exist in the sentiments of the masses of so many countries, for so many reasons. The confrontation between the masses and the bourgeoisie is merely the first negative, because that conflict is followed by another negation: the negation of imperialism and nations.
While yes, obviously workers’ struggles and revolutions still exist, they’re not workers’ struggles and revolutions in a world of imperialism until they come into conflict with the imperialist state and labor aristocratic model that turns workers’ struggles into class collaborationist struggles. This is the second negative which must be fulfilled before the first. Bukharin did not even come close to Lenin here with his opposition to national struggle!
Lenin recognized not one, but two sides here. Not only will workers in the oppressed nations not be able to liberate themselves without throwing all colonizers out; the workers in the oppressor nations are de-humanized by their privileged position, and can never act in an innocent, human way until they overthrow the oppression that they themselves carry out sans conditions.
“Self-determination” as a term is extra valuable. Because it signifies not just a national idea, but also a general idea: self-determination does not just mean breaking off to form your own entity, it means having the ability to freely develop as a self-thinking subject, not forced to follow the ideas and signifiers of another subject. And should proletarian politics not be about self-determination in that exact sense?
It is only an alienated and elitist little clique which would think that we can just ”trick the workers into socialism” with some concessions and with ”transitional demands” that force them into revolution, or Lassallean-type ”workers’ control” arrangements under capitalism.
Spreading consciousness over the proletarian identity… clearly drawing the line between its interests and the interests of the oppressor… wanting the proletariat to be humanized, not to have a segment of it seize some temporary power. The goal is FREEDOM from all the nonsense fetishes of bourgeois society: freedom from the enclosure of woodlands, from tax, from bosses, freedom to develop in freedom…
And it was our greatest mistake to forget that fact.