The past two decades have witnessed a barrage of propaganda against Marxism and its revolutionary heritage. The mainstream media, universities, professors and historians: all have gone on the offensive to discredit Marxism. In this article, originally published in the Marxist Student magazine, we examine the most common myths about Marxism and socialism.
The past two decades have witnessed a barrage of propaganda against Marxism and its revolutionary heritage. Since the collapse of Stalinism – not socialism, but a monstrously deformed caricature of Marxism - from one front to another the mainstream media, universities, professors and historians have gone on the offensive to discredit Marxism. We examine here the most common myths about Marxism and socialism.
Are socialism and democracy incompatible?
The Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere are the most commonly used resource for attacking Marxism. Many of the misconceptions about Marxism can be linked quite clearly with the establishment of the first workers’ government in the world with a clear revolutionary programme – that of the Russian Bolsheviks. The October Revolution of 1917 is described merely as a ’coup’ and no expense is spared to equate Marxism with the crimes of Stalin.
It cannot be denied that these Stalinist regimes had an enormous bureaucratic caste at the top of society and lacked any basic democratic rights. Such historical examples are used to “prove” that socialism and democracy are completely incompatible.
A study of the Russian Revolution, however, reveals a flourishing of society after the end of the revolution: the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion; introduction of free universal healthcare and education; a booming economy and giant leaps forward in science and culture.
Many of the gains of the Revolution were rolled back under Stalin; but this process of degeneration into a totalitarian regime was not the inevitable result of Marxism – as the capitalist class and their mouthpieces would have us believe – but the result of attempting to build a socialist society in an isolated and economically backward country, as explained in the article on “Stalinism” elsewhere in this issue of the magazine.
We should also take a look at what democracy looks like under capitalism. Looking around the world today, where - despite crisis in the economy and austerity across the globe – the rich get richer, it is clear that society and the economy are run in the interests of a tiny minority: the bankers, industrialists, financiers – i.e. the capitalist class. This “1%”, by owning and controlling the main levers in the economy, are the only people who really get any say regarding the major decisions in society. For the vast overwhelming majority of society – the 99% - there is little say in how society runs.
In this sense, capitalism can be described as a dictatorship of capital. This does not deny the democratic form which governments take, with elected parliaments, freedom of speech, etc., but expresses the fact that the state in those countries exists to perpetuate a particular set of property and power relations. Quite simply, the state in capitalist society exists to maintain capitalism and the privileges of the capitalist class.
We can see this most clearly in Europe, where elected governments have been thrown aside and replaced with unelected technocrats, imposed by the European Commission and European Central Bank, all in the name of the so-called “national interest” – i.e. the interest of the financial markets and the big-business investors. The austerity imposed on countries like Greece and Spain has led to real life horrors equivalent to that of some of the worst dictatorships in history; all whilst billions sits idly in the bank accounts of the biggest companies, who are unwilling to invest because they cannot make profits.
As opposed to this dictatorship of capital, Marx and Lenin talked of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”: in essence, a society where the ruling class is the working class – that is, those who under capitalism depend on a wage for their survival. In a socialist society, the economy would be run, not for the profits of a tiny minority, but for the needs of the vast majority, under a rational and democratic plan of production. Rather than simply voting for elected politicians once every few years, ordinary people would have a say in the day-to-day running of society.
The experience of Russia has led many to see Marxism, communism and socialism as bywords for dictatorship and as ideas inherently opposed to democracy. This would be a profound mistake. Marxists are the biggest fighters in the battle for democratic rights, which are vital tools in the struggle for better living standards. The right to free association and assembly allows workers to form powerful trade unions and political parties with which to organise the common struggle. The right to free speech allows revolutionaries to agitate with the revolutionary ideas and program to transform society. All these rights were won by workers in struggle, rather than bequethed to us by the ‘enlightened’ ruling class.
Democratic rights, however, can only ever be temporary or legal formalities under capitalism. The need for the capitalist class to maintain its hold on the levers of power mean that every right and reform successfully won by the working class will inevitably be undermined when crisis hits and the capitalists refuse to let their interests be threatened; hence the use of unelected technocrats in Europe recently, to carry out austerity measures despite huge popular opposition.
By contrast, socialists fight for every democratic right of the working class. What Marxists offer, however, is a way to ensure the permanence of these rights and provide real, genuine democracy. In the final analysis, real democracy is a question of time – time for ordinary people to be involved in political activity and the running of society, rather than having to work 50-60 hours per week just to get by.
By running the economy under a rational plan, we could eliminate unemployment and share out work, thus reducing the hours of the working day and freeing up time. Investment in technology could be used to shorten the working day further still, creating the genuine material conditions for people to participate in the democratic decision-making and economic planning in society.
Are Marxists in favour of violence?
If Marxists defend democratic rights, why violent revolution, the “red terror”, the Red Army and the civil war in Russia?
We should begin by emphasising Marxists are entirely in favour of peaceful revolution. But it is also true that Marxists are not pacifists, and we recognise that in attempting to transform society by putting the wealth in society under public and democratic control, history teaches us that revolutionaries will possibly be met with the violent resistance of the old ruling class, who will attempt to defend their privileges
It should also be emphasised, however, that the accusation against Marxists that we are in favour of violence is pure hypocrisy from the capitalists. Whenever the question of revolutionary violence is thrown at the feet of a Marxist, we point to the blood and carnage of capitalism itself. What of the violence of drone strikes across Pakistan and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The brutal dictatorships of Latin America through the 1970‘s and 80‘s- in Chilé, Argentina, Brazil, etc. – all supported by the US government?
What greater condemnation of the horrific violence capitalism inflicts on the mass of humanity could there be, though, than the First and Second World Wars - mass, industrial slaughter – all for the purpose of carving up the world market between different imperialist powers?
What of Cromwell, the Jacobins and the American Revolutionary war? The ruling class make every effort today to distort, disown and disguise the revolutionary and violent methods they used to break the rule of the feudal crowns and establish their own regimes. The colonists in America were certainly not gentle in disposing of loyalists to the British Empire in the war for independence!
And, finally, what of the smashing of the Paris Commune in 1871, where tens of thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered and thousands more driven in to exile for attempting to implement the first workers’ state in history.
All of this modern and historical violence in the name of capitalism – and yet the capitalists today slander the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks so bitterly for the following reason: for the first time in the history of capitalism, the slaves fought back and they won.
With this said however, the October revolution was perhaps the least bloody revolution in history! There were more people killed in the supposedly ‘bloodless’ February revolution that overthrew Tsazism and established liberal democracy. In fact more people lost their lives in accidents as actors filming Sergei Eisenstein’s October, than in the actual October Revolution they were dramatising!
It is not the Bolshevik revolution that was violent but the counter-revolution of the minority who opposed it. Immediately following the revolution – not a “coup”, but a mass movement of workers, soldiers, and peasants – the wealthy sections of Russian society began a campaign of economic sabotage and launched military operations to destroy the new workers’ government. They were aided in these murderous campaigns by the invasion of 21 foreign armies, including contingents from Britain, France, America and nearly all major capitalist powers. The terror of the counter-revolutionary armies was immediate and merciless. Many hundreds of thousands were killed as a result.
The ruling class say the “socialist experiment” of the Soviet Union failed. But imagine if, in science, one walked into a laboratory mid-experiment and attempted to destroy the researchers’ equipment...and then had the audacity to declare the experiment failed! And yet, this is the logic of the capitalists today, who neglect to mention that they have intervened militarily in every attempt throughout history for a socialist society to be built.
It must again be emphasised that today, such is the overwhelming numerical weight of the world working class, that the possibility of carrying out a peaceful transformation of society is entirely possible. The only thing maintaining capitalism is the reformist leaders of the workers’ organisations who are unwilling to break with capitalism and put forward a socialist alternative. The missing link is, therefore, is the lack of a conscious revolutionary leadership organised as a revolutionary party, which can bring together and generalise the particular struggles going on today on an international scale, in order to act as the midwife of history and help the new socialist society be born as smoothly as possible. This is our task today!
Is capitalism efficient?
Apart from the conduct of socialists on an ethical level, though, attempts are frequently made to prove the inefficiency of socialism compared with capitalism. The poverty of ‘socialist’ countries – from Mao’s China to Castro’s Cuba, from the Soviet Union to North Korea – are raised like phantoms to deter people thinking of a life beyond capitalism.
The first problem with these arguments is the characterisation of these countries as socialist. Certainly, important aspects of socialism were present in the Soviet Union, and continue to be present in Cuba. However, they remain far from healthy socialist countries. In a genuine socialist society, the economy would not be planned in a top-down manner, based on the whims of a bureaucratic clique, but from the bottom-up, using a system of workers’ democratic control in workplaces and elected representatives at a national and international scale, in order to democratically plan how society’s resources are used and allocated.
In any case, comparing Cuba to the advanced capitalist countries is a false method. Aside from the benefits rendered to the advanced capitalist nations by decades of crushing exploitation of the colonies (like Cuba!), countries like Cuba started from a much lower level of economic development. A more appropriate comparison would be the other Caribbean islands where capitalism has had its chance to show what it can do for the people - Haiti being the most pertinent example, an island almost synonymous with utter poverty and exploitation of children in Nike sweatshops for American markets.
Under the myriad pressures of its circumstance, the Russian revolution degenerated during the 1920s. What was originally a workers’ democracy based on the incredibly fresh and healthy soviets (local councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants), became heavily dominated by the Communist Party bureaucracy, at the head of which was Stalin.
Nevertheless, some glimpse of the advances possible under socialism can be seen from what happened in the “Communist” world during the twentieth century. In spite of its choking bureaucracy, its wild brutality to opponents, and the twisting and turning of its political trajectory, the Soviet Union did manage to prove to the world the superiority of an economy based on nationalised industry, producing necessary goods on a planned basis.
In 1917, Russia had yet to properly emerge from feudalism. Over the coming years it was even further thrown backwards by the events described above. And yet by the time of WWII it was able to defeat Hitler’s armies thanks to the nationalised planned economy. Even after the war, and without Marshall Aid, the entire industry of Eastern Europe was rebuilt in a matter of a few years. By the 1950’s the Stalinist states had advanced industry and had made significant strides in science and culture, and the USSR was the first country to put a man, and a woman also, into space.
The planned economy had the strength to provide full employment, free education at all levels and to fund significant leaps in technical development even in Stalin’s Russia and Castro’s Cuba. When the capitalist powers were on the ropes, swaying under the blows of the Depression, the planned economy of the Soviet Union gave regular annual growth rates of over 20%, and the heavy industries expanded by 400% in this period.
Of course, the appalling human cost of many of these developments and the distortions brought to the cultural and scientific experimentation of the time by Stalinist dogma must not be forgotten.
The flip side of this, of course, is the gains possible with a healthy planned economy under democratic workers’ control, with full freedom of scientific and social development. Even given all of the appalling flaws in the degenerate model of socialism which was the USSR, incredible advances were also made. Given these facts, it takes only a small exercise of the imagination to see the possibilities for development if a healthy workers’ democracy was established.
Compare this to the colossal waste under capitalism, with mountains of garbage dumped on the third world, the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere through use of fossil fuels (particularly fracking) and the eye watering expenditure on military hardware.
We are told that the “invisible hand” of the market is the most efficient way of allocating resources. And yet we are living through the deepest crisis of capitalism that history has ever seen, a crisis in which the bank accounts of the biggest companies in the UK and US hold a collective £800bn and $2trn respectively in cash – money that they will not and cannot invest because they would not make any profits.
How is this efficient? How is it efficient for there to be empty houses alongside homelessness; for factories and offices to lie idle when there are plenty of things that society needs; for there to be millions who are unemployed and millions more who work two jobs just to get by? Yet these contradictions are the logic of capitalism.
Demands, then, for universal housing, a job for all, and the abolition of all barriers to free education and healthcare are very reasonable! The primary barrier to these demands and the development of society is the capitalist system – a system that is proving to be very inefficient indeed!
What about human nature? Aren’t we all natural greedy?
The question of so-called "human nature" is one of the most commonly raised arguments against socialism - but it is also one of the easiest to debunk.
Many people believe that the way people think has always been the same, and that we will always think the way we do now. But a few examples will show that nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is, like all things in nature, human consciousness and society are always in a state of change. Marx explained that "conditions determine consciousness". In other words, our social environment determines to a large degree how we think. For example, if we were born thousands of years ago as peasants in China, our world-view would be very different! If we were born as royalty in China thousands of years ago, we would also have a very different view of things than if we were peasants.
Human beings rose to the top of the food chain not by competing against each other and crushing one another in the struggle to "get ahead", but through cooperation. Only by cooperating were humans able to combine their resources to hunt, build shelters, and eventually grow crops and domesticate animals etc.
Just look at the example of a human baby. Compared to a deer, which can stand up and run within minutes of birth, human young are totally helpless for years. Baby humans could not survive even a few days without the help of others. In this respect, primitive humans needed to cooperate if they were to survive the elements, wild animals, find enough to eat, etc. For the vast majority of human existence, there were no classes, and we lived communally in small tribes, dividing up work and wealth in the interests of everyone.
Although, on the surface, it is appears that nowadays we are all "individuals", the truth is we are even more dependent on literally thousands and even millions of other humans around the world. Can any one person design a car, mine and process the metals and other materials needed, build the factory, and put together a car themselves? To even pose the question shows how absurd the idea is. And what about the petrol to fuel it? Or the roads to drive it on? What about the food we eat? The list goes on and on - and we have only scratched the surface. It is clear that under capitalism, almost everyone is indirectly linked to everyone else through the world market and the exchange of commodities.
We work together and live together. But do we have police around 24/7 to make sure we don't all kill each other? Do we run around murdering each other "to get ahead"? If that were the case, then nothing would ever get done and we would all starve to death in a matter of days!
So why do people have this strange idea that we are all "individuals"? Again, it is conditions determine consciousness. Marx and Engels explained that in any society, the dominant ideology was that of the ruling class; today, this means the ideology of the capitalists – an ideology of greed and competition
The capitalist class do everything in their power to affect the way we think. Through our education, through the media, religion, etc., we are raised to have the values of the capitalist system - the "dog-eat-dog" attitude, which states that the only way to get ahead is to stomp on your opponents. We are raised to look away and think nothing of the homeless, the starving, those killed in war, etc. - or at most to say a prayer for them and give a little "charity" to ease our conscience.
These "values" benefit only a tiny handful of people - the ultra-rich capitalists! The rest of us, in our daily lives, gain nothing from the ideology of greed. What most people want is peace, stability, a decent job, decent healthcare and education, time off for family and loved ones, etc. It is only the capitalist class which thrives off the individual competition between one company and another.
One of the main contradictions of capitalist society is that we have social production – i.e. we produce the things we use socially, like the example of the car given above - but private appropriation of the surplus wealth produced. In other words, we produce wealth socially, but the profit goes into the hands of a tiny minority! The thousands of workers who actually know how to produce cars in a factory do not get to decide what to produce or how, or what to do with the extra wealth - the capitalist class does.
Socialists want to end this contradiction by having social control over the socially produced wealth. This wealth, produced by working people, could then be used to provide better wages, welfare, healthcare, education, safe conditions, new technology that could reduce the working day, etc.
This is not a utopian idea - the material pre-requisites for this already exist. The only barrier to this is the grip the capitalist class has on political and economic power. Only unity of the world working class can put an end to this situation, and end the horror, degradation, poverty, and instability of the capitalist system once and for all. Then a whole new world will open up.
Imagine a baby born into a world with no hunger, no want, no poverty, no lack of jobs, etc. With such radically different conditions, they would have a completely different consciousness – i.e. they would see the world in an entirely different way than we do today. Under socialism, people will relate to each other as people, and not as mere commodities to be bought and sold.
The reason for the vast bulk of the problems we suffer under capitalism is scarcity – there is simply not enough to go around after the capitalist has taken their share. To take an example from nature, if you take 100 rats and put them in a cage with enough food for 100 rats and then a little bit more, you will have docile, friendly, and gregarious animals before you. But if you put those same 100 rats in a cage with only enough food for only 50 of them, you will quickly see the situation deteriorate into a murderous, greedy, self-interested orgy of violence and bloodshed. Of course, humans and their society are much more complex and on a different level than 100 rats in a laboratory cage, but the example illustrates an important point.
As we all know, much of the scarcity we find is artificially produced. The problem under capitalism is not that we produce too little, but that society’s ability to produce exceeds our ability to buy; the productive forces outstrip the market; goods pile up in warehouses and factories lie idle, all because people cannot afford to pay. As Marx stated, under capitalism it is a problem of poverty amidst plenty.
"Human nature", like all things, is in a constant state of change. To accept that it is set in stone for all time does not stand up to even the most simple analysis. Humans have created wonderful tragedies, comedies, songs, poems, paintings, sculptures and countless other expressions of artistic creativity which are a reflection of our changing world view at any given time. Just take a walk through an art, science, or historical museum and you will see the changing consciousness of humanity graphically portrayed. As Marx explained, "the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways - the point however, is to change it." And with this changed world, our way of thinking will change too!