Marxism: A Primer for Confused Clergy

A short time ago, in my parish church, I sat through a fevered Marxist exhortation that passed for a homily. I was not particularly surprised. I had suffered similar experiences in lecture halls listening to my colleagues delivering lectures on what purported to be contemporary history. Some elements of our national culture, in education and entertainment, have never made a secret of their preference for what they consider “Marxism.” The Christian community, itself, has long endured manifestations of the same disposition in “liberation theology” and its likes.

For about a century, Marxism, the doctrine of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), has attracted the moral and intellectual support of a significant number of Western intellectuals and cultural luminaries. In 1917, with the onset of the Bolshevik revolution, the generally negative reaction in the West was moderated by a notable positive response by an articulate minority of credentialed journalists and academics. Their tone was set by John Reed (1887-1920). He typified many of those who would later defend a generic Marxism and the revolutionary systems it spawned.

Reed was a politically radical scion of a well-to-do family and had privileged access to the best education. Like most of those who were to follow him, his socialism was well-intentioned, suffused with noble sentiment, but largely devoid of specifics. When the Bolshevik revolution broke out in 1917, he made an immediate positive response to the call of V.I. Lenin (1876-1923)—and, in fact, participated in the October Revolution in Russia and, in time, in the activities of Lenin’s Third International. His romanticized and sympathetic rendering of the events of November 1917—Ten Days that Shook the World—remains, to this day, on the reading lists of many college courses devoted to the history of Russia. In 1981, the book became the basis of an Academy-Award-winning film, Reds. This undisguised propaganda film for Bolshevism was naively accepted as “art.” It prompted no objection—even though the homicidal history of Bolshevism was an established fact. The notion of a romantic and “progressive” Bolshevism has since become an integral part of the acknowledged educational and entertainment culture of the United States.

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After the confirmed revelations of mass murders and unspeakable political oppression, both of which marred the history of his rule, Josef Stalin (1878-1953) ceased to be touted by American intellectuals—as he had been during the 1930s and 1940s. For all that, American intellectuals were clearly reluctant to surrender their celebration of Bolshevism. Through all the revelations concerning the enormities of Soviet rule, the image of Lenin, defender of the values of the Enlightenment, and advocate for the poor and downtrodden, remained. The intelligentsia of the Left continued to defend the October Revolution, but only as it had received expression in the politics of Lenin.

Unhappily, in informed retrospect, there is very little in the thought and political behavior of Lenin that merits regard. While one can parse anarcholiberal sentiments out of his book, The State and Revolution—anticipating as it did the “withering away of the state,” Lenin’s behavior as ruler of Bolshevik Russia delivers an entirely different impression. He argued that as long as class differences remained “irreconcilable” in the Russia he controlled, the political state would remain. And, of course, it was left to Lenin to decide if the class differences in Bolshevik Russia remained irreconcilable. As long as he deemed them so, dictatorial rule would remain.

Lenin made it very clear that “proletarian dictatorship” would be a rule “unconstrained by law.” It would be a system in which the “party line” would be inviolable, sustained by regular purges within the ruling party, and summary justice without. Under Lenin’s administration many Marxists were made to pay the price of their failure to conform.

As victor of the civil war that followed the October Revolution, Lenin inherited an enterprise that was then producing about 25 percent of its pre-war productivity. Agricultural productivity was totally inadequate to maintain the active military and the thousands upon thousands of party functionaries. In the first years of the 1920s, as the civil war drew to its conclusion, poor weather and government policy caused famine throughout the agricultural regions, sweeping away millions of peasants. In places, the desperate population resorted to cannibalism. In the desperate effort to survive, Lenin had his followers simply confiscate whatever food could be found—and coerce whatever labor was necessary. The entire unhappy system was subsequently labeled “war communism.”

By the first months of 1921 the entire situation deteriorated still further. There had been almost one hundred peasant uprisings—and in March the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base, together with some military units, rose in rebellion. The uprising was suppressed only with considerable violence. Lenin was compelled by the constellation of circumstances to undertake a critical reassessment of his revolution. The result was a reformulation of the overall party line—and the introduction of a set of policies that would transform everything.

He proposed a “New Economic Policy” which restored some property rights to the peasantry. They were to pay a fixed tax in kind on their produce, and be allowed to market the remainder. Some private business activity was allowed and foreign investments solicited. Concessions were advanced to foreign business interests, and international trading was encouraged. Lenin readily acknowledged that this was a “step back” from the revolution, but if Bolshevism were to survive it would have to embrace what he identified as “state capitalism.”

Almost immediately, there was an increase in the tempo of economic activity. For the short remainder of his life, Lenin continued to foster the state capitalism he had introduced. There was little about it that was Marxist—other than its vocabulary. Nothing of the elaborate economics to be found in the dense tomes of Das Kapital influenced its policies. Differential wages were paid; factories were run by authoritarian directors; labor was disciplined; strikes were proscribed; and the allocation of “profits” (however they were designated) was determined by management and the state authorities. International capitalists had no difficulty in understanding the new system—however much they deplored some of its curious dysfunctions.

This was the system Stalin inherited—with all its oppressive potential. He made it “socialist” by abolishing private property—thereby rendering Lenin’s innovative system a “socialist” state capitalism. It was with this system that he undertook to fashion “socialism in one country.” In the process, in order to weaken the potential resistance of the peasantry, Stalin collectivized agriculture—at the cost of its productivity. One of the results was the Great Famine of the early 1930s. Stalin’s response was to build on Lenin’s example—to create an archipelago of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union to house real or fancied dissidents; to exponentially expand Lenin’s purges until they became the Great Terror of the 1930s; to impose a draconian labor system that cost the lives of millions of Soviet workers. Estimates vary as to the number of unnatural deaths caused by Stalin’s policies, but they numbered in the tens of millions.

It was the Stalinist model of “socialism” that Mao Zedong (1893-1976) imposed on China in 1949—and the results were largely the same. Although he had insisted for years that he would not attempt to introduce socialism into China, he did precisely this when his forces acceded to power. Within five or six years after succeeding to power, he fully abolished private property throughout China. Once accomplished, he then decided that he knew better than Stalin how to mobilize the masses in order to industrialize a pre-industrial economy. He told his colleagues that the enterprise would probably cost China fifty million casualties. The policy was that which is now identified as Mao’s Great Leap Forward—and, indeed, it did cost China an estimated thirty to forty million unnatural deaths—through overwork, disease, starvation, and execution. To suppress the resistance that mounted when it was discovered that all the sacrifices of the Great Leap had been in vain, Mao conjured up the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—which proceeded to further consume at least a million more lives.

In the interim, Pol Pot (1925-1998), a self-characterized Marxist revolutionary from Cambodia, had become imbued with Stalinism in France and enamored of Maoism by a visit to China during the frenetic activity of the Great Leap. Freely admitting to not having read any of the “thick books” of Marxist theory, Pol Pot returned to Cambodia to lead the revolutionary forces of the “Khmer Rouge” to victory. There were academics and journalists in the United States and Europe who welcomed this latest “progressive” revolution.

During his brief tenure as leader of revolutionary Kampuchea—between 1975 and 1979—Pol Pot succeeded in destroying perhaps one quarter of the entire population of his homeland—through overwork, starvation, abuse, and execution. Areas identified as “killing fields” saw the mass murder of non-Khmer ethnic groups and political dissidents. In 1979, his entire homicidal system was overthrown by invading Vietnamese. The suppression of Pol Pot took place about the time that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was preparing an official judgment—Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party—addressing the rule of Mao Zedong.

Mao had died in 1976, and by 1983 the CCP declared his rule “a leftist deviation”—a quarter of a century of flawed leadership. In all the years of Mao’s dictatorship, China had made but modest gains for which it paid an exorbitant price in human lives and treasure. Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), retaining all the properties of the authoritarian system of state capitalism, suppressed all its “socialist” features—he restored property rights, solicited foreign investment and technology transfers, together with strict management and export-led trade. As a consequence, most American cultural elites have entirely lost interest in China.

What remains of all this for American leftists is a free-floating kind of admiration for anything “Marxist.” Fidel Castro and his stagnant “socialist” Cuba, for example, remain a lodestar with a scant firmament of their approval. And sometimes—however inexplicable—it inspires the enthusiasm of our local clerics.

(Photo credit: “The Fence at the Old Gulag in Perm-36”; Gerald Praschi / Wikimedia)


  • A. James Gregor

    A. James Gregor is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1961. His recent publications include: Marxism and the Making of China: A Doctrinal History (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014); Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History (Stanford University Press, 2012); Marxism, Fascism, and Totalitarianism: Chapters in the Intellectual History of Radicalism (Stanford University Press, 2008); and The Search for Neofascism: The Use and Abuse of Social Science (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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