Thursday, November 5, 2015

“Marx was not responsible for the Horrors of Communism” is Nonsense

The cry that “Marx was not responsible for the crimes of Soviet communism” is Marxist apologetics at its worst: an attempt to completely exonerate Marx from the horrors of 20th century communism.

It is also curious that many Marxists claim that Soviet communism was some “betrayal” of Marx and Engel’s vision of communism, but then at the same time go on to engage in the most disgraceful apologetics for Soviet communism.

However, that is not my purpose here. The question is: to what extent was Marx responsible for the authoritarian nightmare that was the Soviet Union?

Of course, it is true that Marx was not personally responsible for the torture chamber that was Stalinist Russia (obviously not, he was dead). And we can of course rule out the following senses in which Marx might have been responsible for Soviet crimes:
(1) Marx was not personally morally responsible in the way a Soviet executioner of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror was responsible for mass murder;

(2) Marx was not personally morally responsible in the way that Lenin or Stalin were responsible for mass murder when they ordered or signed the orders to kill millions of people.
Now any rational person can admit that Marx was not responsible in these senses above.

Nevertheless, there remains a terrible sense in which Marx was clearly indirectly responsible for the authoritarian and murderous nature of these regimes by means of his ideas and influence on later generations. If you think ideas have no influence on people, then you are clearly wrong, and the demand for a dictatorship of the proletariat with “despotic inroads on the rights of property” is right there in The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1985 [1888]: 104–105).

Or take Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, which was based on a letter he wrote in 1875 and was published in 1891.

By the mid-1870s, reformist or moderate Continental socialist parties and leaders had risen to challenge the views of Marx in significant ways. In Germany, in 1875 there was founded the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, which became the modern Social Democratic Party of Germany, and it adopted a moderate program that Marx opposed.

However, Marx rejected that peaceful reformist model for communism and towards the end of the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx states frankly his opposition to democracy and his different vision of the state in the transitional communist society:
“What, then, is the change which the institution of the State will undergo in a communistic society? In other words, what social functions, analogous ‘to the present functions of the State, will remain there? This question can be answered only by proceeding scientifically; the problem is not brought one flea’s leap nearer its solution by a thousand combinations of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘State.’

Between the capitalist and the communist systems of society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. This corresponds to a political transition period, whose State can be nothing else but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. But the platform [sc. of the German Social Democrats] applies neither to the latter, nor to the future State organization of communist society. Its political demands contain nothing but the old democratic litany that the whole world knows: ‘universal suffrage,’ ‘direct legislation,’ ‘administration of justice by the people,’ ‘arming of the nation,’ etc. They are a mere echo of the middle-class People’s Party, of the League for Freedom and Peace; they are all demands that, so far as they are not of an exaggerated phantastic conception, are realized now. Only the State, in which they are found, is not situated within the boundary lines of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of ‘Future State’ is present State, though existing outside the limits of the German Empire.” (Marx 1922 [1891]: 47–48).
It should be quite clear that Marx envisages an authoritarian system here, and that he was an enemy of peaceful democratic reform through elections and political movements. Until the end of his life he was an advocate of violent revolution, and even endorsed the violence of the Russian revolutionary movement in his last years (Sperber 2014: 537). These are all clear reasons why Marx was, quite simply, an extremist and an enemy of democratic, constitutional government, and why it is absurd to deny that his ideology bears a real responsibility for the horrors of 20th-century authoritarian communist governments where his ideas on the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were put into effect.

If some Nazi were to write works inciting people to violent revolution and a genocide, and later people were actually inspired by these works and actually did establish a violent genocidal Nazi state in line with the plan of the works, only the most irrational, stupid and dogmatic ideologue would say that the original Nazi bears no indirect moral responsibility for things that were done by people who followed his advice. Exactly the same argument applies to Marx.

Even worse, we have this brutally frank vision by Friedrich Engels in 1872 of what a Communist revolution would be like:
“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. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?
Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” 1874
There is not a shred of evidence that Marx would have disagreed with this.

It stands as a chilling statement of how Engels envisaged the Communist revolution: authoritarianism, violence, and a terrorist state. This is like a playbook for 20th century communist regimes, and – is it really any surprise? – Lenin was a great admirer of his essay of Engels (Hunt 2009: 259).

Also disgusting is the way that apologists say that Marx and Engels would never have approved of the violence and crimes of, say, the Soviet Union. How the hell would they know? Did they ever read this passage by Engels?

Engels, Friedrich. “On Authority,” 1874

Hunt, Tristram. 2009.The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. Allen Lane, London.

Marx, Karl. 1922. “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Marx and Daniel de Leon, Critique of the Gotha Programme and Did Marx Err?. National Executive Committee, Socialist Labor Party, New York.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1985 [1888]. The Communist Manifesto (trans. S. Moore). Penguin Books, London.

Sperber, Jonathan. 2014. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.


  1. Question: Can we assert, in the same line, that current capitalism is the objective natural path following the paradigmatic description of it (and switch to "liberalism" in that case, as the original philosophical doctrine grounding it)?

    Is what we live the true description of THE capitalism, or an imperfect contingent realization of corrupted interpretations of it (switch for democracy, progress-led society, technician society, consumption society, or whatever..)?

    Is then Adam Smith (or the founding fathers) responsible for climate change, sea level rising, starvation in Africa, dictatorship in 70's Chile, and any accusation made by first-level anti-capitalist discourse?


  2. "Is then Adam Smith (or the founding fathers) responsible for climate change, sea level rising, starvation in Africa, dictatorship in 70's Chile, and any accusation made by first-level anti-capitalist discourse?"

    Clearly not -- as anyone in 30 seconds of rational reflection could see. Why? Because Adam Smith never openly and explicitly advocated policies that he thought would cause sea levels to rise, starve Africa, see dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s, or cause climate change in the late 20th century.

    In contrast, Marx and Engels advocated a violent and authoritarian dictatorship of the proletariat that would -- in Engels' own words -- "maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists".

    1. And also note how "reactionists" is one of those disgusting words that could include anybody -- even people who peacefully opposed Communism or wanted to merely speak out against it.

  3. An excellent post.

    I am a bit surprised to hear that Marx rejected the program of the Socialist Workers Party.

  4. You place a lot of emphasis on the word "dictatorship" but did you know that by the same analysis we presently live in the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie"?

    Lenin may shed some light on this for you:

    "It is natural for a liberal to speak of “democracy” in general; but a Marxist will never forget to ask: “for what class?” Everyone knows, for instance ... that rebellions, or even strong ferment, among the slaves in ancient times at once revealed the fact that the ancient state was essentially a dictatorship of the slave owners. Did this dictatorship abolish democracy among, and for, the slaveowners? Everybody knows that it did not.

    To transform Kautsky’s liberal and false assertion [that class dictatorship is the opposite of democracy] into a Marxist and true one, one must say: dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised."

    Compare this passage with what I said above. Does anyone deny that the social elite exert an almost complete control over our "democratic" processes?

    Arrival at a more complete form of democracy necessitates the gradual elimination of class distinctions, which reformists will never achieve -- they're more interested in class collaboration, which sounds lovely but fails to accomplish anything when the material needs and drives of two classes are fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds.

    Also, I see you've made no mention of just what the Soviet Union represented to the world's working people. This may introduce you to the tip of the iceberg, though I can recommend more formal sources as well!

    Have a great day.

    1. You place a lot of emphasis on the word "dictatorship" but did you know that by the same analysis we presently live in the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie"?

      Except this is just more Marxist stupidity. The word “bourgeois” for Marxists is just an ill-defined and ignorant term of abuse – like the word “positivist” for idiot libertarians.

      Anything Marxists don’t like is stigmatised as “bourgeois” -- even though the term is never even defined properly.

      You need only remember how Communist nutjobs used to rant against the “bourgeois” natural sciences of the capitalist West – even when these fools’ own communist “science” was turned into comic depths of absurdity by Lysenkoism.

      Now, yes, there is no doubt that the rich and the business world does over-influence Western democratic systems and sometimes in outrageous ways. But the power waxes and wanes, is not monolithic and does not vindicate the Marxist conspiracy theory view of the world.

      The superrich or middle class rich aren’t monolithic. Historically, many middle class people have voted Labour or for social democratic parties. Anti-capitalist conservatives – certainly in the 19th century – have attained power and often done things so-called “bourgeois” people (at least in the fevered Marxist imagination) have strongly opposed, e.g., the beginnings of a welfare state were invented by the German conservative monarch Bismarck.

      If this Marxist myth that we live under a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" were true then the post-WWII social democratic revolution would never have happened. There wouldn’t have been nationalisations or universal health care systems or intense business regulations.

      You and people like you are brainwashed apologists for totalitarian insanity.

      You think you live in a "dictatorship" but you don't even know what the word means. If you had, for example, been forced to live in Stalinist Russia as a kulak or victim of the Great Terror, then you'd quickly see what an actual dictatorship is like, you f**king wanker.

    2. Wow, I have never seen you actually this angry on your blog.

      To keep in line with your argument:

      Supposedly, even if a typical Western social democratic government with excess influence of the rich and the corporate class is somehow a kind of dictatorship, how would anyone still think that the Soviet Unión is a preferable option?

      The rich have too much control over Western politics -> We must replace all of this with kulaks, forced relocations, and a pólice state?

      Is that honestly what these people are saying?

    3. "Is that honestly what these people are saying?

      Yes, Prateek, it sounds awfully like they are. It is bizarre, shameful and disgusting.

      As I said above: it is also curious that many Marxists claim that Soviet communism was some “betrayal” of Marx and Engel’s vision of communism, but then at the same time go on to engage in the most disgraceful apologetics for Soviet communism.

      Either (1) this "Anonymous" just proves my point, or (2) he actually is admitting that Soviet communism is what Marx and Engels had in mind and it would be a good thing.

    4. Question: what the Soviet Union represented to the world's working people? Answer: he greatest political scam ever. Czar-style absolutism, large scale enslavement of working people, disinformation, poverty, hate, war and death.

    5. It's worth pointing out that 'dictatorship' is distinct from 'totalitarian', 'authoritarian' and otherwise abusive/violent. Dictatorship is simply a form of government where one person/party/class rules, and could feasibly be relatively benign, as illustrated by Singapore/Yugoslavia*. Not that dictatorship is unrelated to these things, but conceptually - particularly as used by Marxists - it's distinct.

      Prateek, that is really not what communists are saying. That's probably why you can't find any saying it.

      *'Relatively' does a lot of work here, depending on your point of view about these places.

    6. LK,

      don't forget that at the time Marx was writing, the UK was not a democracy. Only wealthier members of society had the right to vote. So it was literally a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie'.

    7. the later democratic transformations of UK society changed it from being a state which basically only existed to serve the interests of the wealthy, to a more mixed situation.

  5. Of course, if he's responsible for "the horrors," then it's fair to say he's also responsible for the vast achievements, no?

    1. Vast achievements such as? Russia would be richest country of the world if it had used its near infinite natural resources as well as Norway.

    2. I would love to answer this in depth, with references. However, I would need some assurance that LK would actually post (and not delete) my comments here. Otherwise, there's really no point in putting in the effort, and the best I can say is that any attempt to understand the enormity of the Soviet achievement is swimming against a current of Cold War propaganda that never dried up -- especially in the English-speaking world.

    3. LK, you should insist on consistent screen names. This is impossible with multiple Anonymous saying contradictory things. (It's like Murphy in stereo.) One cannot sensibly tell what response is to whom or from whom or about what.

  6. Clearly the responsibilities for the crimes of Soviet communism lie with the perpetrators and the perpetrators alone.

    1. That is rubbish. If person A incites person B to commit some outrageous atrocity, person A must still bear some moral responsibility for having caused the crime.

      By inciting people to try and create a violent revolution and illegitimate authoritarian state without consent, Marx must bear some responsibility for 20th century communism.

    2. You cannot incite actions that occurred 30 years after your death.

    3. Can't you? Isn't incitement a result of your advocacy? Why does that dies when you do? If you honor your dead mother's last wish was her request irrelevant to your doing so? If a neo-nazi, waving Mein Kampf aloft, attacks a synagogue it's unfair to say Hitler had any role in inciting it?

    4. One of your very best posts LK.

      I'll just leave this for you. I'm sure you'll know why ;)

    5. Thanks, Ken B.

      As for the "regressive left", yes, that is very real and yet another outrageous aspect of the modern left. I hate the regressive left. I agree with Dawkins and Maher on this:

      I think people also fail to realise how much this regressive leftist nonsense is bound up with postmodernism and the absurdity of truth relativism and cultural relativism.

    6. "Clearly the responsibilities for the crimes of Soviet communism lie with the perpetrators and the perpetrators alone."

      You've signed the "Free Charles Manson" petition then?

    7. Are you going to formulate an argument or spit venom from your keyboard?

    8. It was the dead guy that made me do it. That line in his critique of the Gotha programme just made the hate boil up inside me.

      One of the poorest posts I have read on this blog in some years.

    9. Here is your error: made me. No-one made you. Incitement is not compulsion. Blame does not divide. If I incite you to a bad act we are both culpable. So in my view Manson is guilty, but your words, perpetrators only, exculpate him. I know you do not actually think him guiltless, I am showing your argument is wrong. You admit Incitement is culpable in that case but deny it in the other.

    10. So giving a reductio is both NOT an argument and spitting venom?
      Christ, how did I put up with those venomous math teachers refuting my homework, I feel so abused.

    11. There is no parallel between the matter in the original blog post and the Manson Family murders.

      For most people a moment of reflection would reveal this.

    12. No I admit that in one case Charles Manson gave a direct order to members of the Manson Family, which they carried out in little over 24 hours.

      I do not think that Karl Mark should be tried for Stalin's purges.

      And I think your insistence that there are parallels between to two quite ridiculous.

    13. It's amazing how many people do not understand a reductio argument.
      SS: I say A
      KB: A implies B. You don't believe B, so you should reject A.
      SS: I don't believe B! Fool!

      So one more time. Manson "perpetrated" none of the murders. He was not present. But he is culpable because he incited the murders. He's be just as guilty if he had died of a heart attack as his family headed off to commit the crimes. When you make a blanket statement that those who advocate and incite cannot be blamed if they don't perpetrate your statement covers the Manson case.

    14. The problem is that you do not accept the facts of the two cases are different. I find that amazing, but there you are. (Shrugs)


  8. That is correct Ken B you cannot.

  9. Why would I want Charles Manson freed? And how does this have any bearing on the matter in hand? Quite extraordinary non-argument.

    In the case of the Sharon Tate murders Charles Manson directed members of the Manson Family to kill people in a specific property - and he did that - on the day before the murders happened.

    It seems ridiculous to me that I feel I have to point out that this does not compare to lifting lines from a letter written 30 years before the Russian Revolution and 50 years before Stalin's purges.

    But there you are.

  10. It is a puzzle LK. Most normally intelligent people understand you can judge a politician or advocate on the basis of his advocacy. Most people think King's advocacy of non violence central to how we judge him. Augustine's endorsement of forced conversion affects how most of us judge him. It seems a routine observation. In most cases at least.

    And blame is not like momentum, conserved, divided, transferred. Blame is a judgment. I can judge 100 or 1. I can blame both Bernardo Gui and Augustine.

  11. It's hard to blame Marx because he really did not lay out how to create "socialism" in any detail at all. Much of the short-term demands in the communist manifesto have been implicitly accepted by most governments and some (like forced industrial labor) made sense at the time.

    I am generally an apologist for Marx but I don't blame Adam Smith for western conservatives or Christ for medieval Europe's barbarism, I think ideologies are primarily tools used to rationalize what one already wants to do rather than guides for behavior.