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;Now any rational person can admit that Marx was not responsible in these senses above.
(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.
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 : 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.’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.
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 : 47–48).
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?There is not a shred of evidence that Marx would have disagreed with this.
Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” 1874
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 . The Communist Manifesto (trans. S. Moore). Penguin Books, London.
Sperber, Jonathan. 2014. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.