When Marxism first came into existence, most of its opponents were people of different philosophical leanings. Most of the attacks on Marxism, therefore, were directly hostile to it and tried to repudiate Marxism completely. But over time as Marxism started to take hold among the masses and started to spread as the revolutionary theory of the working class, the attacks on Marxism changed. The criticisms of Marxism now were not coming from outside the Marxist camp, but from inside the socialist camp.
The change these socialists proposed for Marxism were not presented as direct criticisms or challenges but as “additions” to Marxism due to changing circumstances or this or that recent developments in capitalism or technology. Such is the beginning of revisionism in Marxism. But how does this relate to someone today, in the twenty-first century, asking that Marxism needs to be updated? And why are “revisions” to Marxism a bad thing at all?
What is Marxism?
More often than not, Marxism is thought of as an economic or political doctrine only. By Marxism, it’s meant the economic critique of capitalism that Marx formulated in Das Kapital or the political systems of the Soviet Union or China. Even someone as esteemed as Noam Chomsky has a similar view of Marxism. “Marxism, the concept, in my view” he says, “belongs to the history of organized religion.” A bold but unsurprisingly unoriginal claim from the foremost leftist anti-communist intellectual. He continues:
Take, say, Socialism. Marx had almost nothing to say about it … There are a few scattered sentences in Marx’s writing about socialism. He’s a theorist of capitalism. He was a theorist, basically, of nineteenth century capitalism. He developed sort of an abstract model of the capitalist system and its properties, from which I think there is a lot to learn. But to assume it offers a doctrine for today … it makes no sense.
The accusations are clear: “Marxism” is a religion, Marx had almost nothing to say about socialism, Marx was a theorist of capitalism (more specifically, nineteenth century capitalism), and Marx’s analysis of capitalism cannot possibly be used for today’s capitalism. The accusations are also, obviously, very similar to that of a common liberal against Marxism. But none of these are true.
Marxism, the philosophy developed by Marx and Engels, is not only their criticisms of capitalism but a much broader view. It’s a complete philosophical system and a method of analysis. To think of Marxism as being simply a doctrine that criticized nineteenth century capitalism is to completely misunderstand Marxism. Marxism is used interchangeably with dialectical materialism, a complete philosophy that has a lot to say on things ranging from the nature of reality, space, time, knowledge to the nature of humans and human socoeties, and finally that of how humans organize their societies’ productions and distributions to meet their desires and needs. As Joseph Stalin explains,
Marxism is not only the theory of socialism, it is an integral world outlook, a philosophical system, from which Marx’s proletarian socialism logically follows. This philosophical system is called dialectical materialism.
As Lenin explained, Marxism traces its sources to and is consequently made up of three parts: German philosophy, English political economy, and French socialism. When one talks of “updating” Marxism, it is always a good question to ask: which part? Almost always, the answer is something that falls under the category of political economy or at times, something about socialism but in relation to the political economy of capitalism. Although it is almost never specifically mentioned by the people so eager to “update” Marxism, what is implied is that the capitalism of today is so advanced and changed from Marx’s time that we cannot possibly use the same analysis to further advance the cause of socialism. Sometimes the part of Marxism “needing an update” falls more clearly under the socialism category and happens to be the dictatorship of the proletariat or the nature of class struggles.
But are Marxists really this dogmatic as these updaters of Marxism would have us believe? Do Marxists really resist any and all changes to Marxism?
Marxism and revisionism
In the beginning of the twentieth century, Eduard Bernstein, a well-respected Marxist of his time, had claimed that the proletariat did not have to wage a revolutionary struggle against capitalism in order to establish socialism and that it was possible to evolve capitalism into socialism by reforms.
Around the same period, Lenin also made an addition to Marxism. He had claimed that capitalism had left the pre-monopoly era and had entered into a the monopoly stage of capitalism. This was marked by a domination of finance capital, a concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few giant companies, a concentration of finance capital in a few well-developed countries, and a constant struggle between these countries to carve up the rest of the world. Capitalism had entered its imperialist stage.
Both Bernstein and Lenin made additions to Marxism. Yet Bernstein is universally acclaimed as a revisionist while Lenin’s analysis is upheld as an important and indispensable revolutionary addition to Marxism. But why?
With Bernstein’s addition, we are erasing a fundamental aspect of Marxism: class struggle. Bernstein underestimates the class antagonisms that exist between the capitalists and the working class. Regardless of how many reforms a parliament may pass, the essential character of capitalist system will remain the same: wage labor, exploitation, imperialism, competition, unemployment etc. These are contradictions inherent in capitalism itself and reforming one or two of its aspects will not lead to a change in the character of the whole thing. To permanently put this dying system behind, it’s necessary for the working class to seize political power, smash the bourgeois state, establish a new state with the proletariat in charge, and lead the development of a socialist system by expropriating the old owners of property and moving towards a system of collective ownership. Bernstein essentially sweeps all of these under the rug and claims that reforms are enough to solve these contradictions, i.e., he mitigates the class struggle.
This is what revisionism essentially is: a modification of Marxism to strip away its revolutionary character. Lenin said in relation to revisionism that “if geometrical axioms affected human interests attempts would certainly be made to refute them.” Revisionism is modifying well-established principles of Marxism because they conflict with human interests — or more precisely, the interests of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in its era of imperialism is a valuable addition to Marxism because it sees a more developed capitalism and provides an analysis of it without stripping away any revolutionary content of Marxism. It sees that certain quantitative changes in capitalism had led to a qualitative change in the character of capitalism itself, leading to new relations among nations and more emphasis on certain aspects of capitalism.
Does Marxism need an update?
On the question of philosophy, Marxism would only require an update if the nature of reality has changed fundamentally or if the Marxist position on it has been proven wrong. This is typically not the position taken by those who outright declare Marxism needs a revision.
On the question of political economy, much fuss has been made by bourgeois economists “proving” the labor theory of value wrong by this or that method or playing “gotcha” with other ingenious rubbish. Marx and Engels wrote on the vulgar economists’ efforts to disprove the Marxist economic doctrine and many books have been written on this from both sides. If the claim is that imperialist capitalism has entered a qualitatively different stage in its development, it must first be shown rather than vaguely declaring that Marxism needs to be updated on this sector.
The liberal revisionist’s ambitions also lie in trying to update one of the more revolutionary aspects of Marxist theories: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dictatorships of any kind, we’re told, are unsustainable in the modern world. We need more autonomy and freedom and this or that new trendy political theory and a “mishap of this or that opinion.” This, of course, is a gross misunderstanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat as understood in Marxist theory. All class societies are dictatorships of one class over the others. If the proletariat wants to establish its supremacy, it must establish its political supremacy over the bourgeoisie by seizing control of the State and establishing a class dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. By doing this, it also paves the way for its own abolition as a class and all class distinctions in general. Engels and Lenin, among others, wrote plenty on this subject in Anti-Dühring and The State and Revolution. Denying the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat clearly identifies a “Marxist” as a revisionist, one who sways between petty bourgeois and proletarian class characteristics.
But this must also not give way to a dogmatist or textualist interpretation of Marxism. “The soul of Marxism”, Lenin said succinctly, “is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.” However, this “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” should also not negate well-established principles of Marxism that are characteristics of class societies or capitalism in general. By not giving into either textualist dogmstism or revisionism can one preserve the truly revolutionary theory and tactics of Marxism.