Marxism-Leninism was the official theory of the Soviet Union, and in several other so-called “communist” countries. Predictions of that famous theory, as described for example in (1), turned out to be in conflict with reality. What was expected to become an ideal democratic society in post-revolutionary Russia became a totalitarian system based on social inequality and brutal exploitation of slaves in numerous Gulag camps. The purpose of this article is to share what the author, who was once a Polish communist, knows and thinks about Marxism-Leninism.
Section 1. Timothy Snyder
How can a democratic society protect itself from dangers of totalitarianism, such as fascism and communism? Some answers to this question can be found in a short 2017 book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century,” written by a well-known Yale University historian, Timothy Snyder (2). In that book he wrote: “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are now wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
Is moral sensitivity of people sufficient to protect world societies from mass murderers? Probably not. What else is essential? It is elimination of poverty and injustice. How can this be accomplished? Many sociologists have asked this question. Karl Marx was one of them. He believed that “proletarian dictatorship” was the answer. Will the 20th and 21st centuries be named after this kind of dictatorship? This remains to be seen.
Section 2. Albert Einstein
Reflections of the well-known physicist Albert Einstein are also worth sharing. In a 1949 article entitled “Why Socialism” (3), he wrote that “most of the major states in history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged classes of the conquered countries. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.”
Einstein also wrote that “historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called ‘the predatory phase’ of human development.” The term “predatory phase” was not widely used in what Marx and Lenin published. Einstein was probably thinking that Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler were examples of predatory rulers.
At the end of the article he wrote: ” … A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion.”
Section 3. Leszek Kolakowski
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (4), criticizing Soviet ideology, wrote: “…all educated people in the Soviet Union had to study Marxism-Leninism.” Referring to this political ideology, he elaborated: “Marxism- Leninism consisted of Stalin’s own doctrine plus quotations selected by him from the works of Marx, Lenin and Engels. It should not be supposed that anyone should be free, in Stalin’s days, to quote at will from Marx, Lenin, or even Stalin himself. Marxism-Leninism comprised only the quotations currently authorized by the dictator, in conformity with the doctrine he was currently promulgating ….” The Soviet ideology, in other words, was a farce. Naive intellectuals probably believed that the path of the post-revolutionary development was chosen on the basis of open debates within the party leadership, while in reality the path, after the 1930s, was chosen by the tyrannical ruler. Ideology ceased to be an intellectual process of guiding political decisions. It became a means of justifying decisions.
A good example is a doctrine according to which the class struggle must naturally intensify after the victory of revolution. The doctrine was invented by Stalin to justify terror; it was not based on the Soviet reality. Millions of kulaks, and most of the old Bolsheviks, were liquidated under the banners
of that theory. In sum, Marxism-Leninism’s emphasis on historical necessity made it look like science while the “Stalin knows best” practice, and the emphasis on infallibility, made it look like religion. Stalin was glorified as if he were a god, in the Soviet Union; the phrase “cult of personality” is often used to describe this aspect of Stalinism.
Section 4. Police State?
Was Stalin’s Russia a police state? In answering this question, Kolakowski wrote: “It is important to notice, considering the purges, that Stalin’s Russia was at no time governed by the police, nor was the police ever ‘above the party’; this was an alibi used by would-be reformers after Stalin’s death, who maintained that their task was to restore party supremacy. True, the police under Stalin could arrest and murder party members at will, but not at the highest level, where all such procedures had to be ordered and approved by the top party authorities and in particular by Stalin himself. Stalin used the police to rule, but he himself ruled both party and state in his capacity as party leader, not as a security chief … .”
Section 5. Controversial Topics
College-level debates, devoted to controversial topics are important. But who should organize debates devoted to Soviet ideology? Should this be done by history teachers or by sociology teachers? This is likely to become another controversial topic. Those who are interested in this subject will probably benefit from reading the contents of two new online items, (5) and (6). The first is about Putin’s “Rewriting Russia’s History”; the second is the suggested curriculum for those who will teach Soviet history in American high schools. The described curriculum might turn out to be helpful to those who teach university courses; its usefulness to high school teachers is likely to be controversial.
Section 6. Russia Today
The Soviet Union (USSR) no longer exists as a separate country; it has been replaced by the Russian Federation (RF). That country has a democratically-elected president and a Communist Party (CPRF), as described, for example, in (7). The ideology of that party is briefly described in (8). The strategic goal of CPRF, according to these references, is “to build in Russia a renewed socialism” for the 21st century. What do CPRF ideologists write about Marx’s idea of proletarian dictatorship? What do they write about crimes committed under the red banners of Marxism-Leninism? What precautions do they recommend to avoid repeating such crimes? Questions of this kind are worth asking and worth debating.
Section 7. Remnants of Capitalism ?
Marxism-Leninism was presented to Soviet students as a valid scientific theory. Predictions of that theory, according to the ruling party ideologists, are highly reliable. The ideologists claimed, for example, that prostitution and racism would disappear gradually, after the proletarian revolution. But these social imperfections, named “remnants of capitalism,” did not disappear.
Discrepancies between theoretical predictions based on Marxism_Leninism and practical Soviet reality were also mentioned in the above Introduction.
The author of this essay is a retired physicist; he knows that discrepancies between theoretical expectations and practical reality are common. Such discrepancies usually result from mistakes made by scientists. In some cases mistakes are made by those who report real facts; in other cases they are made by those who report results of theoretical considerations.
Section 8. Anti-Government Activity?
It is useful to be aware that scientific methodology (9) refers to the set of norms developed by scientists to deal with mistakes and controversies in research. Most mistakes are recognized and corrected when new results are discussed with colleagues, or via the peer review process. But exposing discrepancies between Soviet reality and theoretical expectations of party ideologists was dangerous in the USSR, or in other communist countries. It was a punishable anti-government activity.
Politically-motivated punishment of honest people for telling the truth was not a new phenomenon; Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei are well-known examples. Lysenkovism–Stalin’s discrimination of geneticists–is a more recent illustration. And cybernetics, in the Soviet book entitled “Short Philosophical Dictionary,” was defined as “bourgeois pseudo-science serving American imperialism.” The author of this essay accepted this kind of “truth” as a communist student in Poland (10).
1) Ludwik Kowalski, Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under The Stalinist Regime, Wasteland Press, Kentucky, 2008; also available online, at http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/father2/introduction.html
2) Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tim Duggan Books, 2017, (page 13).
3) Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Bonanza Books, 1954; also available at: https://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism/
4) Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, v3, Clarendon Press, Oxford,1978
9). R.K. Merton (1942) “The Normative Structure of Science”. In: Merton, Robert K. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press,1979, 267-278.
10) ) Ludwik Kowalski, Tyranny to Freedom: Diary of a Former Stalinist, Wasteland Press, Kentucky, 2009; also available online, at http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html