An Introduction to Marxism-Leninism: An Interview with Jeremy of Proles of the Round Table
Marxism-Leninism is a left tendency that is often misunderstood, misrepresented or in some cases distorted to suit some political narrative. I have considered myself a socialist for years but up until recently I knew little or nothing about Marxism-Leninism or the history of 20th century socialism. I started to learn more about Marxism Leninism by reading classical texts by Marx, Lenin and Mao, and by learning more about the history of 20th century socialism, the good with the bad. In addition, I discovered the podcast Proles of the Round Table, which does an excellent job at discussing the history of existing socialist countries and movements with a revolutionary communist perspective. Jeremy a former SPUSA member and current Prole agreed to discuss some of the basics and common misconceptions of Marxism Leninism and the legacy of actually existing socialist countries. In our discussion I asked Jeremy for basic definitions on terms of Marxist-Leninist theory such as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, ‘democratic centralism’ and the revolutionary vanguard party. I also asked Jeremy to comment on some common misconceptions of Marxism Leninism specifically, being Eurocentric, dogmatic, and unconcerned or hostile to any kind of identity politics. And, I asked for a brief clarification on historical examples of Marxist Leninist states such as the USSR, China and Cuba. In closing, we discuss why or why not Marxism-Leninism is essential and relevant today. It is my hope that this interview serves as a basic introduction into the theory and history of Marxism Leninism for all comrades regardless of left tendency. First, I asked Jeremy to give an introduction on the podcast Proles of the Round Table and how he became a Marxist-Leninist.
“Proles of the Round Table Began as an animated Youtube series back in February of this year. We would record the audio, edit that down, and then do some basic flash animation. But that portion of the show took, routinely 60-80 hours to complete. So we decided to shift to a podcast only format by episode four. Often, we would hold meetings for SPUSA local or Colorado Springs Socialists at breweries and, over a few beers, would talk about history from a left perspective. It just so happened that a bunch of us began to align with Marxism-Leninism. For my part, it was a gradual drift. Some of it was reading theory. Some of it was reading about historical examples of Marxist-Leninist states. In terms of long term, sustainable socialism it just seemed to be the most viable framework. I considered myself a libertarian socialist for a long time, and I still think that’s a morally defensible ideology. It unfortunately does not offer a lot of answers in terms of how to deal with reactionary counterrevolution or imperialist intervention. As far as choosing topics for episodes, we usually talk amongst ourselves and decide based on things, which interest us. But we also have a Patreon, and our patrons have suggested a few of the recent and upcoming episodes.”
The Proles of the Round Table podcast does a great job of refuting misconceptions and myths about socialism and existing socialist countries. I asked him to address several of those misconceptions, starting with the common charge of authoritarianism.
Part One: Authoritarianism and Actually Existing Socialism
“A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.” – Friedrich Engels On Authority
“But a real socialism, it is argued, would be controlled by the workers themselves through direct participation instead of being run by Leninists, Stalinists, Castroites, or other ill-willed, power-hungry, bureaucratic, cabals of evil men who betray revolutions. Unfortunately, this ‘pure socialism’ view is ahistorical and nonfalsifiable; it cannot be tested against the actualities of history. It compares an ideal against an imperfect reality, and the reality comes off a poor second.”- Michael Parenti
The term authoritarian often gets hurled against Marxist-Leninist and Maoists from the right, left and center. Authoritarian is a commonly used adjective to describe actually existing socialists states of the 20th century and socialist states today. Critics may point to 20th century socialist leaders as being bloody dictators, who crushed dissent, slaughtered their own people and had no interest in building socialism. Critics such as Chomsky go as far to state these dictators ‘ride to power on the back of the masses.’ I asked Jeremy if there is truth to notion of bloody power-hungry dictators? I asked Jeremy was the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and every instance of actually existing socialism indeed authoritarian?
“There’s really a lot of really awful anti-Communist propaganda which is behind the bloody dictator narrative, and much of it comes from literal fascists. More comes from the CIA, British intelligence, or capitalist media. Almost none of it can be verified by reliable sources. We get into a lot of that in Stalin episode with RevLeft Radio. We also get into more in our Proles of the Round Table episode regarding the Fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a bit too heavy of a question to answer without pages of response. But it’s safe to say, I don’t think there’s much in terms of a meaningful foundation there. In regards to authoritarianism, I feel like the term is virtually meaningless. For example, “liberty” or “free speech” under capitalism, one’s ability to behave in a manner in which one wishes is directly related to how much wealth one possess. In terms of crushing dissent, until capitalism is defeated, there’s not much room for allowing reactionary dialog in a socialist society. Regardless of whether it’s couched in terms of ‘free speech.’ The fact is that discourse influences thinking and thinking influences action and there is no reason, in the face of capitalist subversion, to allow it to undermine the sort of gains which are made in socialist states. In the Soviet Union, for instance, approximately 3% of your income would be spent on housing and maybe 5% on utilities. Imagine the freedom that allows. Imagine being able to go to the doctor without the fear of bankruptcy. Imagine having 21 days vacation per year, on average. Imagine being able to take your family on holiday with little or no personal cost. Imagine receiving the full value of your labor at work. All of this was a reality in the USSR, and that sounds a lot more like freedom than anything we have in the United States. There seems to be a perception that in actually existing socialist nations, bureaucrats were essentially state capitalists, and this is fully untrue. The highest paid individuals in the USSR were artists, scientists and engineers. Stalin himself shared an apartment with his friend Molotov until the day he died.”
As Jeremy illustrated, the leaders and members of the Communist Parties of these countries lived rather modestly in comparison to Western, capitalist nations. The surplus generated from socially owned industries did not go to a CEO, but rather went to the betterment of society and the working class as a whole. For more information on existing socialism and the legacy of 20th century socialism I recommend the book Black Shirts and Reds by Michael Parenti and listening the Proles of the Round Table episodes on the Fall of the Soviet Union, The Space Race and Soviet Cinema.
Part 2: Vanguards and Democracy
“And so in capitalist society we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority.” V.I. Lenin State and Revolution
“We should go to the masses and learn from them, synthesize their experience into better, articulated principles and methods, then do propaganda among the masses, and call upon them to put these principles and methods into practice so as to solve their problems and help them achieve liberation and happiness.” – Mao Tse Tung “Get Organized!”
Readers may point to terms such as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘democratic centralism’ and hold firm to the belief that Marxist-Leninists are indeed, as Chomsky stated in Z magazine, ‘communist thugs’ whom are only interested in building state power to serve their own private interests. In this section Jeremy will go over several key terms of Marxism Leninism. Starting with The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, followed by the Revolutionary Vanguard and closing with Democratic Centralism. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat can often be confused for a simple political dictatorship. One iron-fisted tyrant exerting his will over a helpless population. But what exactly is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat?’ What does it look like in practice?
The term can be described as “essentially the workers, as the most numerous class should control the political realm. Whether that be via direct democracy or representative government, the proletariat ought to be able to subjugate the bourgeois and petit bourgeois interests.” The Dictatorship of the Proletariat can be best understood with a Marxist analysis of the state and its functions. In a capitalist society the state serves the interest of the bourgeoisie. A Marxist Leninist analysis shows that the state arose due to the historical and material conditions of class antagonisms. The state with its armed groups such as the police and military, weigh in to rectify class antagonisms and conflicts in the service of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie. In short, the state is an instrument of class domination, one class oppressing the other class.
“I think the state serves three primary functions for Marxist societies. One, it is a defense against reactionaries within and imperialist invasion from without. Two, it’s a central means of planning and organization, allowing resources to be produced and distributed efficiently and in a meaningful way. Finally, it is a systematic structure through which people can be educated and prepared for full communism. People who have spent their entire lives under capitalism are going to have an adjustment period where they are going to have to deprogram. Deprogram away from the selfishness and greed and competition encouraged under capitalism. That’s not going happen immediately. In fact, even if capitalism were defeated, globally, tomorrow, I’m betting we’re going to have several generations before those tendencies are going to be fully resolved. What can’t be allowed to happen is for bourgeois ideology to make a comeback, whether through a resurgence of markets or insurrection or through attack from the outside. And for that we need the state. Once these things are no longer needed the centralized state will wither away. Technology today more than any time in history can give us the ability for direct democracy, for Artificial Intelligence directed planning and distribution, for meeting basic needs. But we have to utterly smash the capitalist order first.”
With these basic definitions of the State and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in mind, what exactly is Democratic Centralism? Some may have heard of the following description for Democratic Centralism as ‘diversity in debate, unity in action,’ but what does look like in practice? And what role does the revolutionary vanguard party play? Are vanguards inherently elitist?
As for Vanguard parties, “I think there’s something to be said for the critique of vanguard parties as elitist. I like Mao’s take that we should always be going to the people to find out what they need. There needs to be that dialogue. But ultimately, someone has to lead the revolution. To raise class consciousness, put their literal lives on the line, and protect the revolution when it’s done. You can call it whatever you like, and it should certainly be serving the working class, but there has to be some sort of central body, coordinating things.” I would also agree with Mao’s critique of vanguards and Mao’s concept of the Mass Line. The Mass Line ensures that the party and cadres are not above the masses and practicing commandism upon the masses. Rather, the party is not just a teacher but also a student, which constantly learns from the masses, while also teaching the masses.
Another key concept and greatly misunderstood concept is that of Democratic Centralism. As Jeremy explains:
“Democratic Centralism is probably the most misunderstood term in left politics. People hear ‘unity in action’ and ignore anything, which comes before it, because it sounds ‘authoritarian.’ But the point of Democratic Centralism is to have a healthy, involved, robust debate. Everyone is allowed to speak and to have a voice. To address things which others might not have considered regarding this policy or that decision. Once everyone has been heard, whatever is being debated gets adjusted to a form, which is most amenable to the most number of people. Then a vote is taken, and then it’s implemented. And everyone is expected to support the final decision. It’s a good way to make sure all disagreement is addressed early on, so that factionalism doesn’t undermine your project.”
I asked Jeremy if such movements like Occupy Wall Street fell apart due to factionalism and a lack of a central organizational body. He replied, “When I look at things like Occupy or the Women’s March, I see wasted potential. In the case of the women’s march in particular, there were literally millions in the streets. They could have seized the state with those numbers. They’re liberals, so it was never going to happen. There’s too much slavish devotion to the system, as it exists. But Occupy and other similarly structured groups have a similar devotion to ineffective methods of organizing. Visibility is good but visibility is not enough. Sometimes people are angry without focus. And providing some guidance and direction for that anger is better than letting it fizzle out from inaction.”
Part 3: Dogma, Identity Politics and Eurocentrism
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generation s weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
“Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations—such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers.” V.I. Lenin The Right of Nations to Self Determination
In this section Jeremy will address some more common charges made against Marxist Leninists. Those charges being Marxist Leninists are Dogmatic and Eurocentric in their theory and praxis, also they reject identity politics and instead are strictly class reductionists. I asked Jeremy if there was any truth to these allegations.
“I think the accusation of dogmatism comes from the defense of actually existing socialist states. People are confusing the fact that we defend particular instances of socialism with the idea that we want to recreate them. The entire foundation of Marxism is materialism. The material conditions of 2018 are very different from 1917. Necessarily, a new socialist state would have very different character than the USSR. It would also depend heavily on whether that state is established in the west or not. Whether the revolution is largely global or not, and whether the U.S. falls or not. As the current seat of imperialism, the U.S. continued existence would greatly influence how emerging socialist nations would develop. The main point is that Marxists of all stripes should reject dogma. Marxist Leninists should analyze the concrete material conditions and base their course of action off of those observations.”
Next, two more common misconceptions are that Marxists, tending to be Eurocentric and rejecting identity politics. Continuing this criticism, Marx and Lenin are now outdated in their analysis and contributions to socialism. Their contributions may have been important for their distinct period of time, but they fail to provide a concrete universal analysis for the 21st century global community. Does this criticism hold any merit?
“So, on the anti-idpol left, I get the sentiment. Because identity politics without class analysis is bad. But social relations matter outside of purely economic categories. Racism is real. Homophobia is real. And the working class isn’t just white dudes, obviously. We need to be intersectional in our approach to revolutionary action. Marx was from Europe, but ironically, the vast majority of current and most historic Marxist states are outside of Europe. I’m honestly not sure what people mean when they put forth this hypothesis. The great thing about Marxism is that its form can be modified based on material conditions. The German Democratic Republic for instance, looked nothing like Cuba during the same era.”
In closing, I asked Jeremy whether he thought a Marxist-Leninist perspective and revolutionary theory is not only relevant today but essential. “I think that’s a complicated issue. If some 21st century theorist comes up with a new conception of how to build socialism, I’m certainly not opposed. However, it’s going to need to borrow heavily from older traditions at least in terms of a stance on imperialism, an understanding markets and planned economies, a firm grasp on history, and an answer to all of the questions you asked me which isn’t simply a shrug or a dodge or a ‘We’ll figure it out when we get there.’ So for all of those reasons, Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism will necessarily be at least a starting point from which to build.”
Finally, I asked Jeremy if he had any recommendations for readers who want to learn more about Marxism-Leninism and the history of 20th century socialism. “ I recommend reading anything by Michael Parenti, or at least watching his lectures if you can’t sink too much time into that kind of research. He’s got a wealth of knowledge and gets into the history side of things with an explicitly Marxist perspective. And it’s really digestible stuff compared to some others. I hope I have given people some insights and perspectives they might not have considered. I look forward to smashing capitalism together.”