Divergent Theories on Marxism

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Throughout history there have been numerous divergent theories and interpretations of Marxism.  There was Mao Tse-Tung, the extremists who used the guise of communism to meet his own ends.  Then there was the infamous Joseph Stalin’s interpretation of Marxism, which stemmed from Leninism and eventually degenerated into a capitalistic system of bureaucratization and self-fulfilling prophecies to justify his power through policies of so-called socialism.  C.L.R. James, on the other hand, saw through the smoke screen of Stalin’s lies, became a major dissenter, and posed plausible socialist alternatives to problems created in Russia under a Fascist state.

The problem with divergent theories on Marxism is not that there are different views, but that self-proclaimed Marxists have historically been found killing, imprisoning, and making war on each other in the name of revolution.  There were those who used Marx’s ideology to further social change and those who used him to contain it.  This compels us to ask, what is Marxism?  First and foremost, Marxism is a theory of the working class, of the proletariat, involving itself in the articulation of the interests of the working class as a whole, regardless of nationality.   At a time when exploitation and oppression were growing with an expanding capitalistic mentality, Marx’s ideology working to serve the common interests of an entire class internationally was rather appealing.  This leads to the second important element of Marxism, that of the birth of the modern proletariat and the development of its struggle against capitalism.  Recognizing class struggle and making the working class’s presence felt was a key principle of Marxism.   Finally, simply recognizing the proletariat’s resistance to capitalism and its struggle against capitalism was not enough in Marxist theory, but the victory of that class was essential (4).  “The definition that most succinctly summarizes these elements is that Marxism is the theory of the international proletarian revolution” (4).


Before delving into an analysis of Lenin, Stalin, and James’ political histories, I would like to point out some ways in which Mao Tse-Tung’s interpretation of Marxism transformed a man into a god.  The people of China did not simply listen to Mao and respect him, but they hung on his every word and revered him.  Mao was able to penetrate every faction of Chinese life, society, and culture–from weddings, to books, and even down to changing the color of stoplights.  Mao permeated everything everywhere because everyone loved him.  And, because the Chinese people worshipped Mao Tse-Tung, he gained a control over the minds and lives of people no other communist leaders previously had (11).

Mao Tse-Tung

Mao Tse-Tung

Mao created the ultimate authoritarian Marxism, allotting him a power over Chinese minds that led to millions of deaths; because if people worship you, you can literally kill babies.  Mao used this elemental control he had over people’s actions to hammer distinct class consciousness into people’s heads.  He did this by differentiating between various classes in order to fit people neatly into one group or another.  Mao’s analysis of what Chinese culture was like boiled down to class distinctions between the landlords, who owned a majority of the land in an area and did not share the benefits they reaped with the people…they were the counterrevolutionary enemy; the middle bourgeoisie, who were easily swayed toward capitalists or proletariat revolutionaries depending on circumstances…they were selfish and not revolutionary enough; the petty bourgeoisie and the semi-proletariat, who were economically uncomfortable or straight-up poor…they were the most likely candidates for proponents of the Revolution; and finally there were the proletariats, the factory workers…the leaders of the Revolution.  These specific class distinctions united masses of people within the Revolution by creating common enemies among classes outside the Revolution (10).    Mao’s power over the people, and this extreme social stratification proved extremely pungent when Revolutionaries actually put guns in the hands of townspeople in order to shoot and overthrow greedy landlords who had enjoyed a deep-rooted authority for years.  Mao legitimized violent actions by proclaiming, “a revolution is not a dinner party; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, restrained and magnanimous…a revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence…a rural revolution is a revolution by which the peasantry overthrows the power of the feudal landlord class…to establish the absolute authority of the peasants” (11).  In a sense, this was genius: Mao put the power of the Revolution in the hands of the people, which justified the cause through significant actions (i.e. shooting someone) (11).  Nevertheless, Mao Tse-Tung’s mastermind revolutionary measures were authoritarian, extremist, and what I deem to be a misinterpretation of Marxism.


Another deluded interpretation of Marxist theory was that of Joseph Stalin.  Stalin’s corruption of Marxism did not stem from pure maliciousness (as is the case with most who defiled Marx’s words), but built upon Vladimir Lenin’s distortion of fundamental Marxist ideologies. Prior to Stalin’s reign over the communist party, Lenin led the vanguard party in Russia, which was composed of a highly centralized body organized around a core of experienced revolutionaries called the Bolsheviks (5).   Simply called the Party, this vanguard group understood class struggle and the oppression the working class endured at the hands of opportunistic capitalists.  The Party’s ideological underpinnings were to represent Russian workers and protect their interests.  Their goal was to institute a proletariat dictatorship by overthrowing and suppressing the despotic capitalists.  The progressive working-class movement in Russia, led by the Party, incorporated Marxist ideals as a theoretical foundation: revolution to represent the interests of the masses in politics.  The two most important of these ideological foundations, according to Lenin, were that active movement is far more important and functional than programs, and that one should not allow bargaining over principles to satisfy aims of the movement (6).


Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin

Although Lenin did benignly dedicate his life to establishing a society free from oppression, he unknowingly set the stage for Stalin’s fraudulent interpretation of Marxism.  Unfortunately, because it seems to be human nature to want more power once you have wet your appetite for it, the ideal actions of the vanguard Party (the theoretical framework mentioned above) were not actually carried out.  As an intellect, Lenin realized he could never win an election in Russia, so he united masses of workers under a Party, which he appointed himself leader of.  Consequently, Lenin obtained power whether he wanted it or not.  Of course he wasn’t going to refuse power given to him by attentive masses, and he used this advantage to interpret Marxist theory at his own discretion and distribute his rhetoric to the people.  Lenin accordingly interpreted what he considered the two most fundamental Marxist ideologies as follows.  First, to create action of revolution and not passive bandage-like programs, he compelled the Party to utilize democratic centralism.  Secondly, in order to not make theoretical concessions, Lenin condemned freedom of criticism.  Under democratic centralism, decisions would be openly discussed and the Party would make a final decision based on what they felt was best for the people.  After that there would be no more discussion (decisions were final), which left little room for true representation of the masses.

This misinterpretation of Marxist theory derived from Lenin’s notion that when you’re a dissenter, that’s when problems occur.  Lenin felt criticism opened the doors to new and dangerous agencies through the creation of political space, which could bring the ideals of the vanguard Party into question.  He claimed, ““freedom of criticism” means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism” (6).  Because criticism could potentially cause opposition when multiple possibilities and choices were presented to the masses, Lenin demanded an end to freedom of criticism.  Hence, Lenin used the centralized power of the Party (which admittedly had beneficial ideological underpinnings) to implement democratic centralism, and to stop criticism of his ideas and decisions (6).  Thus, he was not a Marxist because he maintained the bourgeoisie nature of the Russian Revolution.

This slight misrepresentation of Marx by Lenin led to Joseph Stalin’s eventual heretical slaughter of Marxism.  Essentially, Stalin’s theory of ‘socialism in one country’ turned into the antithesis of socialism.  In his essay, “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, Stalin claimed that “the capitalist system can be replaced by the socialist system, just as at one time the feudal system was replaced by the capitalist system”.  To do so, “one must look forward, not backwards” (9).  Furthermore, in order to liberate the working class from the burden of capitalism, “one must be a revolutionary, not a reformist” (9) according to Stalin.  He then went on to claim that “capitalism has become enmeshed in contradictions…undermines its own foundation… [and] is pregnant with revolution” (9).  Stalin’s declarations, however, are so wrought with contradictions themselves, he threatened to undermine the foundation of his own system.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

The main problem lay in his hypocrisy in proclaiming corruption among capitalists, while he himself reverted back to capitalism.  Stalinism was born out of a series where the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat; the Bolsheviks then replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the Party; Stalin then replaced the dictatorship of the Party with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.  Under Stalin’s Russia grew a system of repression and degeneration of true Marxism.  All the complaints Stalin made about the private accumulation of Western capitalists became the dynamics under which he operated.

This is an excellent point to quickly explain primitive accumulation as a predecessor of capitalism before elucidating Stalin’s position.  My understanding is that the slow transformation from collective, communal land holding/working, to feudalism (where lords own the land while it continues to be collectively worked public property), and eventually to capitalism (where individuals own land as private property) has led to primitive accumulation.  According to capitalistic ideology, land can be bought and sold by individuals.  These conditions destroy the social cohesion and organizations brought about by communal property ideologies, and replace them with social organizational patterns founded on a scattered, individualized means of production.  Eventually, the advent of capitalism and primitive accumulation beget social order based on competition and disconnected, exclusive properties of insatiable capitalists.  With this transformation, property that was owned by the populace becomes concentrated and controlled by a few greedy people willing to buy up all the land.  Ultimately, the few huge property owners expropriate land from people, accumulate capital by then exploiting the labor of these people, and end the means of subsistence for many.  In this way, the materialistic minority begins to gain almost complete control over the means of production.  As the transformation from sustainable communal land holdings to capitalism continues, wage-labor becomes more and more the main source of production and increasingly a form of social exploitation (where a few large landholders accumulate resources through the manipulation of wage-labor).  This process of primitive accumulation continues to snowball when all the people of a country have been exploited to their full potential and the eager capitalists move abroad to continue their accumulation of wealth and power.  Thus, primitive accumulation becomes a device of globalization as capitalists move around the world and entangle people globally (7).  Karl Marx summed it up best when he said:

“One capitalist always kills many.  Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the co-operative form of the labor-process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labor into instruments only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use of means of production of combined, socialized labor, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime (7).”

As fewer people usurp the advantages of this capitalistic transformation, greater numbers of people suffer from misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation.  With this, grows the revolt of the working class, a class always growing in numbers and united by their collective hatred of the process of capitalistic production itself (7).  This free enterprise taking advantage of the force that maintains its existence cannot expand infinitely, for that reason reversing the trend of primitive accumulation was exactly what Marx was attempting to do.  Joseph Stalin claimed primitive accumulation planted the seeds of capitalisms’ own destruction, which he was right about.  However, his hypocrisy in making such claims would later shine through as he led Russia down a path of primitive accumulation.  At the same time he was complaining about the downfalls of capitalism, Stalin claimed Russia could not be capitalistic because “the main feature of the capitalist system is a most acute class struggle between the exploiters and the exploited” (9).  He noted the absence of such a struggle in Russia, but opportunely forgot to mention that perhaps an acute class struggle did not exist under his regime because, in a society controlled by one party (led by Stalin of course), with all other parties eliminated from the political playing field, with bureaucracy as the political center of gravity, and with all dissenters being executed, there was little room for class struggle.  Stalin meticulously reconstructed Russian society in the interests of a privileged minority and “announced ominously that the party had moved on from a policy of limiting the exploiting activities of the kulaks to a policy of liquidating the kulaks as a class” (2).  A man who insisted on “social ownership of the means of production…comradely cooperation and the socialist mutual assistance of workers…free from exploitation” (9) was effectively waging war on the peasantry.  In Russia, Stalin allegedly did not see the “periodical crises of overproduction and their accompanying absurdities” (9) attributed to a capitalist society.  Yet as many as five million people died of famines that resulted from his collectivization, because peasants could not even have regular production (8).

Basically, Stalin’s bureaucracy monopolized the Soviet system through compulsion and police subjectivism to serve the privileged minority.  Not only did he accomplish this by executing nearly 650,000 people and imprisoning 5.5 million, but also by tyrannically smashing democracy.  “Women’s rights disappeared, Great Russia nationalism rode triumphant over the minorities, workers were stripped of all power and the ultimate aim of everything was ‘socialism in one country’-building up the Russian state”  (8).

C.L.R. James noticed the excessive hypocrisy of Stalin’s alleged Marxist words and actions and noted that:

“Side by side with a tremendous but declining rate of industrial expansion in Russia, the working class has been reduced to a state of pauperization, slavery, and degradation…the real wages of the workers are approximately one-half of what they were in 1913.  A bureaucrat holds all economic and political power.  To continue to call Russian workers the ruling class is to make a statement without meaning (3).”

The main purpose of a capitalist economy is to extract surplus value from surplus labor.  This was precisely the aim of Stalinism, which, according to James, “stamps [Russian] society as being of the same inner essence as capitalism” (3).  Under the guise of communism, the nationalistic party (the Communist Party) gained complete central power and created extreme nationalism in Russia.  After dissecting the economic basis for Stalin’s increased exploitation of the worker and centralization of the means of production at the hands of the bureaucrats, James noted, “if the relations of production in Russia are capitalist then the state is Fascist”  (3).  This is a fitting description of Russia’s economy at that time if a Fascist state is defined as “the political reflection of the drive toward complete centralization of production” (3).  As Stalin’s rule led to an increased manipulation of production, productive forces, and surplus value, primitive accumulation began to take shape in this hypocritical Russian world.  James saw Stalin as a usurper, a distorter, and an obstacle.  However, he also saw Stalinism as part of a process, claiming that “the proletariat itself will smash Stalinism to pieces…only at the end, when the labor movement finds itself fully realized will we see what it is in very truth”  (1).

C.L.R. James

C.L.R. James

Perhaps the biggest divergence in Marxist theory between Stalin and C.L.R. James was that Stalin viewed the Communist Party as the uniter of the ideologies of the masses, while James viewed it as the destroyer of the free activity of the proletariat.  Although Stalin claimed that capitalism was ruinous, he actually drew post-Revolutionary Russia into a downward spiral of state-controlled, capitalistic production.  James stated, “The antithesis of Stalinist society and capitalist society being the same, the solution of their contradictions is the same…the workers must take control of the process of production on a national scale and international scale” (3).  The antithesis he suggested—socialism.  James proclaimed:

“The world today lives in the shadow of state power.  This state power is an ever-present self-perpetuating body over and above society.  It transforms the human personality into a mass of economic needs to be satisfied by decimal points of economic progress.  It robs everyone of initiative and clogs the free development of society.  This state power…destroys all pretence of government by the people, of the people.  All that remains is government for the people (1).”

James’ interpretation of Marxism led to the idea of socialism, meaning the expansion and fulfillment of social values such as free speech, free press, free assembly, continuous employment, social insurance, and so on.  Rather than allow the Communist Party to destroy the free activity of the worker, he suggested that the free activity of the proletariat would emerge through the destruction of the Communist Party.  Free activity would also mean an end to capitalism and the birth of socialism.  His postulations on what the consequences would be if Russia transformed into a socialist state were three.  First, he believed the creative abilities of the worker would be brought to the forefront, thus emancipating the working class.  James recognized Man as the “greatest of all productive forces” (3) and presumed that human freedom would come if and when his potentialities went unrestricted.  Secondly, all members of society would be involved in production through creative labor under socialism.  James claimed that in a socialist Russia, “all [would] be trained and placed in productive labor” (3).  Finally, production would be for social needs, not useless autocratic expenditures.  Socialism would entail the production of practical materials and public works for the collective good, and the suppression of production and spending on things that did not benefit communal peoples (3).  Fundamentally, C.L.R. James’ divergent theory of Marxism would directed toward promoting social change.

As various people throughout history have reinterpreted Karl Marx’s writings and ideologies, some have used his words to gain power over people in an autocratic manner, while others have simply reinterpreted his works to the benefit of the masses.  An example of the former could be Mao-Tse Tung’s ultimate use of class distinction to gain individual power.  Joseph Stalin also fits into the category of the former, building upon Vladimir Lenin’s slight warping of Marx’s ideas and usurping the people through idiosyncratic politics.  His actions certainly spoke louder than his words when the two diverged, as they unquestionably did throughout his rule in Russia.  Such antithetical interpretations of Marxist theory can be summed up best by the eternal words of Lord Acton: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  How such hypocrites as Mao and Stalin could call themselves Marxists was surprising to many, including C.L.R. James.  Although James did not specifically reinterpret Marx’s work as Stalin had done, he questioned Stalin’s own interpretations.  He became a major dissenter toward Stalin’s unfortunate movement toward capitalism and the exploitation of the people and posed credible solutions through socialism as an answer to Russia’s Fascist state.

So which translation of Marxism is most correct?  That depends on your interpretation of Marxist theory and the role of government, political parties, and individuals in shaping reality.  A relativist would claim neither is more right than the other; a nihilist would say they are both equally wrong; and George W. Bush would call them all terrorists.  I believe Lenin was probably the closest to remaining true to Marx’s Marxism, but even he became corrupt from power, which set the stage for further corruption under Stalin.  James posed some respectable and plausible ideas as to how to fix problems created under Stalin’s Marxist regime, but they were just that, ideas.  This is where I consider the problems surrounding divergent theories on Marxism arise.  Marxism is a theory, an idealistic method combined with certain analysis and propositions, leaving room for personal interpretations with regards to achieving an ideal communist nation.  Reality is much different than theory, especially in the social human realm, where what one says and what one does do not often agree.  Doing what is best for the majority of society often gets overlooked by self proclaimed Marxists in positions of power, as can be seen throughout history.  The one example above (that of C.L.R. James) where Marx’s ideologies where not utterly misconstrued was one in which the person was never put in a position of power but had the freedom to theorize behind the comfort of a desk.  Consider Karl Marx’s own words from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“As in private life one distinguishes between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, still more in historical struggles must one distinguish the phrases and fancies of the parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality.”


Works Cited

(1)  “CLR James”.   http://generation-online.org/p/pclrjames.htmAccessed 30 Apr 2005.

(2)  History Channel, The.  “Stalin: Stalin & the Communist Party in the 1920’s”.  http://www.historystudystop.co.uk/php/displayarticle.php?rticle=39&page=1&topic=meu.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(3) James, C.L.R.  “Resolution on the Russian Question”.  1941.   http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1941/09/russia.htm.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(4) John Molyneux.  “What is the real Marxist tradition?”  Originally published in International Socialism 2:20, Jul 1983.  http://www.marxisme.dk/arkiv/molyneux/realmarx/index. htm#pt1.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(5) Lenin, Vladimir.  “What is to be Done?”  Notes on the Text: i.  1902.  http://artsci.shu.edu/ reesp/documents/Lenin–chto%20delat.htmAccessed 30 Apr 2005.

(6)  Lenin, Vladimir.  “What is to be Done?”  Chapter 1: “Dogmatism and ‘Freedom of Criticism’.” 1901.   http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/i.htm#v05fl61h- 352-GUESS.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(7)  Marx, Karl.  “Capital.”  Volume One: “Part VIII: Primitive Accumulation.”  Chapter Thirty-Two: “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.”  1867.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch32.htm.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

 (8)  Socialist Worker Page.  “A Counter to Martin Amis’s New Book: Stalin”.  14 Sep 2002:  issue 1817.    http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/article.php4? article_id=4710.   Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(9)  Stalin, J.V.  “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”.  Sep 1938.   http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1938/09.htm.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(10)  Tse-Tung, Mao.  “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society.”  Mar 1926.  http://www. marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_1.htm.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.

(11)  Tse-Tung, Mao.  “The Importance of the Peasant Problem.”  http://www.chairmanmao. org/ eng /wen/wen18.htm.  Accessed 30 Apr 2005.  


2 thoughts on “Divergent Theories on Marxism


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