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On a Strange Misreading of Marx: A Note

In "A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism" (EPW, 28 May 2011), Markar Melkonian's ideas of socialism and dictatorship of the proletariat do not correspond to those of Marx. Further, "soviet socialism" was neither soviet nor socialism, even in Lenin's time.


On a Strange Misreading of Marx: A Note

Paresh Chattopadhyay

famous. For Marx, communism, socialism, Republic of Labour, society of free and associated producers or simply Association, Cooperative Society, (Re)union of free individuals, are all equivalent terms for the same society.

The victorious outcome of the workers’

In “A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism” (EPW, 28 May 2011), Markar Melkonian’s ideas of socialism and dictatorship of the proletariat do not correspond to those of Marx. Further, “soviet socialism” was neither soviet nor socialism, even in Lenin’s time.

Paresh Chattopadhyay (paresh.chattopadhyay is with the Faculty of Human Sciences, University of Quebec, Montreal.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 24, 2011

he remarks below concern certain selected points in an interesting and scholarly article by Markar Melkonian (MM hereafter) entitled “A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism” (EPW, 28 May 2011).

MM’s first salvo is “Can Marxism account for the defeat of the 20th century socialism?” (our emphasis). Also towards the end of his piece he speaks again of the “defeat of socialism in the 20th century” (our emphasis). MM writes: “As I use the word, then, Socialism, is synonymous with the term dictatorship of the proletariat”, then adds that “this is also the sense in which Marx used the term” and refers to the Critique of the Gotha Programme as the text where this is claimed to occur. Again, MM opines that “socialism” is “workers’ power, the state power of the workers as a class”, and that “socialism is the name of a political state of affairs, not an economic system, let alone a mode of production”. Again, the very title of the e ssay in question carries the leading term “ soviet socialism”, and this term is also used more than once in the body of the text. Similarly, the soviet state is called (by MM) a “workers’ state”. We propose, in what follows, to discuss first the author’s idea of socialism and then his idea of the proletarian dictatorship in the light of Marx’s own position on these subjects. We then take up the question of “soviet socialism”.

Socialism in Marx

For Marx, socialism is conceived as the s ociety succeeding capital(ism). Contrary to a widespread, but wrong idea, socialism is not a transitional society preparatory to communism. Socialism for Marx is communism (including the two stages). That socialism is a society distinct from and transitional to communism has no textual basis in Marx. Lenin, without himself originating this distinction, made it

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self-emancipatory revolution is the socialist society, an “association of free individuals” – individuals neither personally d ependent as in pre-capitalism nor objectively or materially dependent as in capitalism – which is a classless society. With the disappearance of classes, there is also no political power, no state, and so no “workers’ state” either in the new society (Marx 1965: 136; Marx and Engels 1979: 77). Indeed, the German Ideology emphasises that the “organisation” of the new society is “essentially economic” (Marx and Engels 1973: 70).

What about the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which MM says is “synonymous with socialism”, and claims that this is also found in Marx’s Gotha critique? Now, the conquest of political power by the proletariat is not the end of the proletarian revolution, it constitutes, in fact, only the “first step (erste Shritt) in the r evolution” (Manifesto) which continues through a prolonged period till the capitalist mode of production is replaced by the “associated mode of production”, the basis of socialism. This is the “revolutionary transformation period between capitalist and communist society” during which the proletariat exercises its dictatorship (Gotha critique, our emphasis). Marx reminded Bakunin (1874-75) that during this period capital as a relation (hence the proletariat) is still not eliminated (1973: 630). Hence, by definition, proletarian dictatorship cannot be “synonymous” with socialism.

A ‘Workers’ State’?

Let us now examine the author’s affirmation of the existence of “soviet socialism”, of the “defeat of (this) socialism”, and his view that the Soviet Union was a “workers’ state”. Now, the so-called “soviet socialism” was neither soviet nor socialism. It was not “soviet” simply because the soviets in the original sense of independent


o rgans of the labouring people’s self-rule went out of existence within a few months of the Bolshevik victory (Serge 2001: 834). And it would be impossible to demonstrate that there was at any time “socialism” in Marx’s (self) emancipatory sense – an association of free individuals – in that country. On the contrary, it was a régime where – to invert Tagore’s expression – the “mind was full of fear and the head held low”. This “socialism” contained the central pillars of the old society – not only state, but also commodity production and wage labour – the direct opposite of the “(Re)union of free individuals” (Marx 1987: 109). So, if there was no socialism, there could also not be any question of the “defeat” of socialism.

In fact, there is no evidence that even the accession to political power by the Bolsheviks signified a proletarian or s ocialist revolution (or at least its beginning) in Russia in the sense of Marx, that is, a revolution which is the outcome of the “autonomous movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority.” The so-called October Revolution was n either initiated nor led by the labouring people of Russia. Their role was simply to follow the “leaders”. In October 1917, the fate of over 170 million people was decided by a handful of non-proletarian radicalised intelligentsia – far removed from the site of the real process of production and exploitation, unelected and un-revocable by and totally unaccountable to the l abouring people at large.1 Through the substitution of a whole class by a single party, power was seized under the slogan “all power to the soviets” not from the Provisional government but really from the s oviets themselves, the authentic organs of labouring people’s self-rule created by the self-emancipatory countrywide spontaneous popular uprising in February 1917.

This pre-emptive strike was perpetrated independently of and behind the back of the Congress of Soviets depriving it of the right of maternity/paternity regarding the founding act of the new order (Anweiler 1958; Ferro 1980). Not only the soviets ceased to exist (by the summer of 1918), but also another set of workers’ self-governing organs created in work places by the factory workers before October – the factory committees – lost their autonomy and were simply annexed by the trade u nions dominated by the Bolsheviks. The destruction of the labouring people’s selfgoverning organs by the (single) Party power settled once and for all the question of the existence of a “workers’ state” in Russia, as affirmed by MM uncritically following the claim of the régime’s rulers.

Completely contradicting Lenin’s pre-October promise of destroying the old state machine and introducing a “Commune-state” in Russia with election and recall of all position holders, there was “organised introduction of party members at all levels into every branch of the administrative apparatus, and the key positions in the administration were filled by party nominations” (Carr 1960: 221; see also Lorenz 1976: 121; Peregalli 1993: 46). The new power “instead of smashing the old (tsarist-bourgeois) state machine”, had simply taken it over intact and “perfected it” (Marx in 1852). How strange on the part of Lenin to have regretted this fact later, having himself presided over the complete liquidation of the self- governing organs of the labouring people and the consequent birth of bureaucracy right at the start of the regime.

A Socialist Regime?

One wonders how the regime is compatible with “socialism” in Marx’s sense. We should stress that bureaucracy was further strengthened by the total absence of free elections after the last and freest countrywide election to the constituent assembly in early 1918 and the “denial of the right to exist to all the dissidents of the revolution beginning 1919” (Serge 2001: 832). Working in the same direction was the introduction of press censorship and prohibition of newspapers and periodicals critical of the regime. What a contrast with the 1871 Commune! “The Commune had been an entirely democratic


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regime, based on universal suffrage, a v ariety of parties, the liberty of press and association, even of the adversaries of the Commune” (Borkenau 1962: 54). Indeed, soon began the mass disenchantment and unrest among the workers. After the initial feeling of triumph, mass dissatisfaction of the working people was followed by open conflict, repression of the mass protests, and at an “extraordinary” meeting of the delegates from 15 major metal working plants of Petrograd at the beginning of April 1918, the Bolsheviks were denounced for “assaulting workers’ movement with the tsarist methods” (Rosenberg in Kaiser 1987: 119). This trend continued throughout 1918 finally reaching the Baltic fleet (Rabinowitch 2007: 224, 228, 394, 353-55).

Much of the mass unrest and opposition to the regime arose out of the very difficult economic situation of the workers faced with extreme hunger and cold. There was, however, one place – Kronstadt

– whose working people understood better than elsewhere the nature of the new power which in their eyes had turned out to be a Party dictatorship going back on the Party’s earlier October and pre-October promises. Thoroughly disillusioned, they rose against the Party power with the slogan “all power to the soviets, not to parties”, and “down with counter-revolution of the Right and the Left”. “It was essential for the Communist Party”, wrote, an eminent historian, “to suppress the idea of Kronstadt as a movement which defended the principles of the October Revolution against the Communists – the idea of a ‘third revolution’” (Daniels 1960: 144). And, on the completely false charge of collaboration with the Whites, the movement was bloodily suppressed. Thus ended “a bustling, self-governing S oviet democracy the like of which had not been seen in Europe since the Paris Commune” wrote the unmatched historian of Kronstadt, Israel Getzler (1983: 246). Such, then, was the “workers’ state” in Russia even under Lenin, long before the “oriental despot” came to power.


1 On Serge’s testimony, on the eve of the October seizure of power, the membership of all the revolutionary parties of Russia taken together amounted to less than 1% of the total population and of this latter percentage the Bolsheviks constituted only a fraction (2001: 866). And, of course, the decision to seize power was certainly



not taken by the agreement of the party as a whole. It was the work of literally a handful of persons constituting party’s “leadership”.


Anweiler, Oskar (1958): Die Rätebewegung in Russland (Leiden: E J Brill).

Borkenau, Franz (1962): World Communism (Ann A rbor: University of Michigan).

Carr, E H (1960): The Bolshevik Revolution I (London: Macmillan).

Daniels, Robert (1960): The Conscience of the Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Ferro, Marc (1980): Des soviets au communisme bureaucratique (Paris: Gallimard).

Getzler, Israel (1983): Kronstadt (1917-21), The Fate of a Soviet Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Lorenz, Richard (1976): Sozialgeschichte der Sowjetunion I (1917-45) (Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkampf).

Marx, Karl [1965 (1847)]: Misère de la philosophie, in Oeuvres: Économie I (Paris: Gallimard).

  • [1973 (1874-75)]: Konspekt von Bakunins Buch ‘Statlichkeit und Anarchie’ in Marx-Engels Werke (MEW) 18 (Berlin: Dietz).
  • [1987 (1872)]: Das Kapital I, in Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA II/6) (Berlin: Dietz).
  • Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels [1973(1845-46)]: Die Deutsche Ideologie, in MEW (Berlin: Dietz).

    – [1979(1848)]: Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (Frankfurt a. Main: Fischer Taschenbuch). Peregalli, Arturo (1993): Stalinismo (Genova: Graphos). Rabinowitch, A (2007): The Bolsheviks in Power (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

    Rosenberg, W (1987): “Russian Labour and Bolshevik Power” in D Kaiser (ed.), The Workers’ Revolution in Russia 1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

    Serge, Victor (2001): Mémoires d’un Révolutionnaire (Paris: Laffont).



    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 39

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