The Heritage We Sublated: Dialectics and Actually Existing Socialism

By Muhsin Yorulmaz

[This piece was originally published on the now defunct blog ‘Red Century’ in May 2017, and has been reproduced with the permission of the author and editor.]

Among “left-wing” ideologies, Marxism is distinguished from anarchism and reformism by its understanding of reality as a combination of dialectical processes. Among the “three sources and three component parts” of Marxism: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism, the dialectics of German philosophy are most likely to strike uninitiated as obscure and arcane. The importance of a dialectical understanding of the world is often neglected.

Dialectics is what makes Marxism uniquely itself, and not just an especially virulent form of “anti-capitalism”. Indeed, Marx’s view of capitalism as playing some historically progressive, indeed, revolutionary, role, is in line with his rather Hegelian view of history.

All of this is well-known. Less discussed, but certainly of no less significance, is that the history of 20th century socialism was marked by a gradual vulgarisation of Marx’s method, distancing “dialectical materialism” from the Hegelian method that birthed it. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the popularity of obscene comedian-masquerading-as-scholar Slavoj Žižek: While himself a gadfly generally more interested in provocation than serious analysis, academic Marxists experience a sense of relief at seeing one of their own burst from the ivory tower and discuss matters of interest to ordinary people in an occasionally comprehensible way, and from the other side, non-academic Marxists are enthralled at a figure who bring an energetic philosophical angle to discussion to our ideology lacking from the hypocrisy of the CPB, or the fake militancy of the CPGB-ML and the Spartacist League.

Of course, it is easy to wave one’s hands at all this by saying: “Oh comrade, those are all simply fake Marxists!”. And it is certainly true enough that the CPB, the Spartacist League, and the CPGB-ML are all frauds. But we would also have to acknowledge that the frauds have come to outnumber us, and we should ask why that might be.

Those of us used to doing politics in the English-speaking world have all at some point been subjected to the fairy tale, completely the product of a “Great Man” theory of history, that the Soviet Union diverged from the correct line of struggle when Stalin, rather than some other figure, succeeded Lenin as the main “interpreter” of Marxism. An interesting enough narrative for recruiting liberals to the SWP, but hardly a convincing answer for our purposes.

Contrary to the constant appeals that I am subjected to by the uninitiated to read Lenin’s Testament* (and more intelligent Trotskyites know better than to pretend Lenin’s Testament was a love letter to Trotsky, or that it wasn’t openly read during the Stalin era). If I am kept up at night by a warning which Lenin left us, it is the warning that if we are to “hold [our] own in this struggle and carry it to a victorious finish”, we must not merely be materialists, but “conscious adherent[s] of the materialism represented by Marx, i.e., […] dialectical materialist[s]”.

When it is asked of me “what went wrong” in the 20th century experience, I try to not open with my deep hatred for Khrushchev (as deep as that hatred is), but rather confess that collectively, in many social contexts (not only the Soviet Union), we failed to “arrange for the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint” within the very organisations whose task it was to study history.

When scoundrels such as “Rosa Liechtenstein” (Trotskyite, and author of the website ‘’ blame “dialectics” for the dangerous deviations from Marxism such as the “Juche” theory of the Workers’ Party of Korea, one can hardly hold back laughter. This amounts to claiming that the current DPRK leadership, the supposed pinnacle, in the fevered imagination of Trotskyites, of “Stalinism” and the dialectical “perversion” of Marx’s analytical economic thought (!), is a party which has followed Lukács’s advice to deal with the problems they face, following Lenin’s WWI example, in “extraordinarily deepen[ing] and differentiat[ing their] conception of dialectics in [their] reading of Hegel”.

I leave it to “Rosa Liechtenstein” and her inversion, the CPGB-ML, to claim that the DPRK leadership are such high-grade dialecticians.

On the contrary, just as Lenin warned might be the case in the event of the revolution’s failure, we find ourselves surrounded by the most vulgar caricature of Marx’s critical method. Most organisations one meets in English-speaking countries provide a theoretical education limited to a few positions and historical talking points, repeatedly dogmatically, and rather deserving of the scorn which non-Marxists often feel for our ideology. Ideological education should rather extend well beyond the critique of political economy and into the philosophical approach to history and its complex dynamics, developed by Hegel, which produced this specific critique.

While we cannot expect to produce an army of philosopher-warriors overnight, one cannot help but look at Marxist groups in the UK today and see a group of “statist” “anti-capitalists” who cannot creatively engage with the complex dynamics unfolding before them in light of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Without theoretically advanced cadre, no matter how many we are, we have no security against the danger of treason to the class and to the oppressed.

It would be easy to blame the Trotskyites (with their cultish worship of a Bolshevik-turned-agent years after his defining theoretical claims were exposed as counter-revolutionary) and the revisionists (who have substituted state actors for popular dynamics almost entirely in their political analysis) for this climate in which communists are the butt of a cruel joke, with no practical political relevance. Certainly in England in particular, these are the trends which have been dominant, and do deserve some of the blame. But we cannot imagine we have a purely “negative” relationship to these trends, that by opposing them, we can simply end them. On the contrary, we must seek to understand the revisionism in our own history if we are to overcome them, in theory and in practice. And the truth is, if we look back and sum up the 20th century experience, we have to understand that revisionism has roots even in the heritage that we do not renounce.

I must say before proceeding further that I do not claim that a formalistic commitment to the study of dialectics is a shibboleth which can be used to explain all errors of 20th century practice. This would itself be highly undialectical, and indeed idealist: No matter how brilliant the theoretical leadership, we are all held hostage by the objective conditions, including the fundamental class dynamics and their concrete expression in politics. However, it is my claim that our failure to take advantage of favourable conditions, or inability to always turn unfavourable conditions into favourable ones, is in large part because our understanding of the primacy of the material over the ideal resulted in a political approach which trended towards a vulgar positivism distinguished from bourgeois politics principally in being the furthest left.

Of course, Marxism-Leninism is materialist, and it is the primacy of the material that drives us, and even explains the Bolshevik Party’s own shortcomings: Lenin did not want a study group of philosophy students, he wanted a group of militants willing and able to intervene in real politics, overturn the established order, and bring the poor and the oppressed to power. This must be understood, in the first instance, as correct. After all, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

But in the final instance, we must exercise extreme caution to ensure that revolutionaries are properly educated to carry on this struggle with all its contradictions, all its twists and turns, in all its fields of struggle. This means philosophy as much as it means economics and militancy. Following the death of Lenin, can we say that Comrade Stalin endeavoured to realise this in practice? In some sense, we can, in the compiling of the work Dialectical and Historical Materialism and the incorporation of “DIAMAT” into Soviet education. However, even as I appropriate Dialectical and Historical Materialism as a work in general, it had the shortcoming of focusing entirely on those contradictions which gave rise to the affirmation of socialism, and left comrades ill-equipped to discuss the contradictions which would and did remain within (or even arise within) socialist society.

The Khrushchevite revisionists, in their alleged “correction” of Stalin’s errors, vulgarised Marxism further. Contradictions were erased entirely (even in the name of adherence to “DIAMAT”), inside and outside of the Soviet Union (the only contradiction was apparently the “competition” between socialism and capitalism), reducing “Marxism-Leninism” to the cartoon version popular in “official” communist parties today. Revisionism was itself a process, not ending with Khrushchev, nor beginning with him. But it is a negative process, and one that we must stand against. Its roots lie in losing the Hegelian method which actually stands at the root of Marx and Lenin’s theoretical contributions.

The anti-revisionist trend, exemplified by the lines of Mao Zedong in China and Enver Hoxha in Albania, was itself a response to, or more properly a negation of these weaknesses which came to the surface with the clear deviations of the Khrushchev era in the Soviet Union. While they existed as socialist societies, they aided our struggle immensely and provided us with great hope. But only China claims to have preserved “socialism”, and the “socialism” it preserves is weaker than that of the very Soviet Union of which the original “pro-Chinese” camp was so critical. A formal commitment to being “pro-Hoxha” or “pro-Mao” would not actually be sufficient to actually oppose the Khrushchevite revisionism, but even if it may have seemed to be so decades ago, today we are looking at these as past moments in history, not red base areas.

What went wrong in China and Albania?

Again, I must emphasise that the dialectical method is the ideological side of a struggle that was also lost in the material realm in these same countries. The ideological and material find their reflection in each other, their relationship is not exclusively negative. A thorough discussion of the many twists and turns in actually existing socialist states ought to incorporate so many questions that I will not be treating in detail here, including the role of imperialism, the question of how internationalism functions in practice, etc. But as this is an intervention into ideology, into theory, into the philosophy of revolutionary struggle, I will briefly discuss the ways in which both the Chinese and Albanian parties fell short in terms of revealing the dialectics of their struggles to develop socialist society

In both Albania and China, struggles were launched within and against these parties with an eye to preventing the emergence of corrupt upper level cadre who would become the new bourgeoisie within the party and rebuild capitalism within the socialist state. The critical approach was not merely against the enemy in the guise of capitalism-imperialism, but inwards. This is to be commended, and indeed shares much with Hegel’s own observations about what made the world-historical French Revolution so unique:

In this time of upheaval and commotion any specific thing was intolerable. Fanaticism wills an abstraction and not an articulate association. It finds all distinctions antagonistic to its indefiniteness, and supersedes them. Hence in the French Revolution the people abolished the institutions which they themselves had set up, since every institution is inimical to the abstract self-consciousness of equality.

The Chinese experience is better known, and in particular it is known for its failure. As the Albanian party observed at the time, the later Mao period was marked by an all-out assault on (formal signifiers of) “old society”. This “Year One” (or “Year Zero”?) approach understood the “new society” purely in terms of its negative relationship to the old, which is undialectical in the extreme. The effort was carried out largely for correct reasons and with good intentions (and the party of “Cultural and Ideological Revolution” did not condemn the Chinese Cultural Revolution for its struggle with revisionism, but for its understanding of how this struggle war to be carried out), but the laws of motion were such that when this negation was negated, Mao had to make a choice. In practice, Mao found himself forced to side with Deng and his revisionist clique, embracing the Three Worlds Theory, which set back pro-Chinese Marxist-Leninist parties for decades in terms of their analysis of international dynamics.

On the other hand, despite a generally principled stance in international politics, heroic exposure of revisionists, and selfless aid to anti-revisionists in other countries, Enver Hoxha’s own “DIAMAT” was but an alternate timeline of the Bolshevik one, where Stalin lived longer and the contradictions were put off later. There was not a higher level discussion of dialectics, of contradictions in socialism (although Enver Hoxha was concerned with the ongoing contradictions in socialism, thus the ongoing struggle with revisionism). While the Maoists may have a poor model for the continuing struggle in socialism, the line of Enver Hoxha doesn’t provide us with some higher answer than Lenin’s.

But this is precisely why we call it Marxism-Leninism, and do not actually refer to ourselves “Stalinists” and “Hoxhaists” in earnest: Hoxha, like Stalin, was a symbol of our defiant will in practice, but was also student of Marxism-Leninism like us. We can never hope to have a Marxist-Leninist party worthy of the name by simply telling ourselves and others that Stalin or Enver Hoxha were heroes who lived once. We must find a reflection of ourselves in struggles today, and only then will heroes emerge from us as we reflect those struggles. Stalin, Che, Mao, and Hoxha did not rise to the position where they could be a symbol of hope for the downtrodden and strike fear into the hearts of reactionaries by professing Marxism-Leninism in symbolic form, but as the concrete manifestation of the people’s own struggles expressed through Marxism-Leninism.

So what is our Marxism-Leninism, today, in the 21st century? It is dialectics, and it is materialism. It is finding the particular contradictions in our social context, and it is applying the universal lessons of our 20th century history. It is study, and it is action. It is uniting in struggle, and struggling in unity. It is discussion and organisation and struggle in every field of life. It is learning from the masses who lead us, and teaching the masses who we lead.

It will be a contradictory and complicated process, and for this we must be armed with a fiercely critical approach of all actually existing conditions, born out of struggle and taking an active role in it. It will not do to go forth into the dangerous world we live in today, armed only with some paper Marxism, that is just another cult peddled on a street corner to the poor and the oppressed to save them. Rather, it is they who will save Marxism-Leninism. When we can build positive organisational structures which thrive on the dynamics between the masses and the vanguard, between the upper and lower cadres, between persons of different backgrounds whose commonality can be found in the totality of struggle, then, and only then, will a revolutionary party be born in these islands.

Workers and oppressed peoples of the world – unite!

*Lenin's Testament is the name given to a document "written" (he was partially paralyzed and severely ill due to successive strokes) or dictated by Vladimir Lenin in the last weeks of 1922 and the first week of 1923