YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 7, 2014

Marx vs. Lenin

Masks_weird_wonderfulMany of my conservative and neocon friends on Facebook have difficulty in separating “socially responsible capitalists” from hard-core revolutionary socialists. This blog continues my rumination on The Hunger Games, but with an emphasis on the sharp differences regarding the shape of the future utopia within “the Left.” I am particularly interested in the power of the state as embodied in any kind of planning bureaucracy, as this notion of “Big Government” is under assault from the Right.

I started reading Marx while at Pacifica Radio. I was most interested in Marx’s theory of alienation (an emotion I strongly felt as a married woman), but was not aware at that time of how different the original Marxian vision was compared to Marxist-Leninism as it is called, and that became familiar to me primarily through Stalinists and Trotskyists whom I met at the radio station and in graduate school. Upon reflection, I was probably closer to Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxism, which sharply differed from the Third Worldism (Maoism) that dominates academe today. She was a strong adherent to the views of early Marx, that proposed that the socialist revolution could only come when the entire world was industrialized, and the working class sufficiently educated to take power, abolishing the exploitation and alienation that Marxists insisted was present in capitalist (classical liberal) society.

Here is a quote from The German Ideology that I found while wondering why Katniss Everdeen was so keen on hunting and gathering (see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/01/the-hunger-games-trilogy-reactionary-and-postmodern/, and note my recent discussion of Hobson’s influence on Lenin here: https://clarespark.com/2014/06/04/did-bureaucratic-rationality-cause-the-holocaust/.

[Marx:] “…as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. …”

Note that Marx’s examples all refer back to pre-capitalist stages of social organization, and are silent regarding what future work might look like, apart from the work we associate with primitive cultures. And yet a few pages on, he explains that without technological innovation, world-wide, there can be no conditions for overthrowing modern industrial exploitation and alienation:

{Marx arguing against German counter-Enlightenment philosophers:] …it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and…people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about my historical conditions, the [development] of industry, commerce, (agri)culture, the [conditions of intercourse]….(Robert C. Tucker translation: On the relatively recent publication of this work see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_German_Ideology. The quote from early Marx suggest that he would be considered to be a Menshevik, not a Leninist.)

While still at UCLA, some undergraduates approached me to observe what they viewed as bullying in a class taught jointly by Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson, two commanding presences in the history department. Lucky me, I chanced to attend the class where the Luxemburg-Lenin-Stalin debate was covered. The issue was whether revolutionary socialists should leap-frog over capitalism and support “reactionary” liberation movements in colonized undeveloped countries, with Luxemburg arguing against such tactics, but Lenin (like Mao after him) was all for fighting [the Western oppressor], no matter how backward the society. This was surely not Marx’s vision.


“Bureaucratic centralism” is of course the preferred form of statism for the Leninist Left, while Marx was a strong advocate for the withering away of the state after a brief period of popular worker rule.

It was the genius of the progressive movement that they selectively appropriated those features of revolutionary socialism that buttressed elite rule, but in their statism, they should be associated with the “anti-imperialist” Lenin, and to a lesser extent with Marx and Luxemburg. But one should not blame conservatives for confusing New Deal liberals with communists. The Popular Front against “fascism” (i.e., the limited government of the classical liberals) made that bewilderment possible. (For more in this vein see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/21/managerial-psychiatry-jung-henry-a-murray-and-sadomasochism-1/.)

Hugo Gellert poster, 1924

Hugo Gellert poster, 1924



  1. […] of “race” and “ethnicity.” (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/26/race-class-and-gender/ and https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/, but even Alexander Saxton, my dissertation director, a proudly unreconstructed Stalinist, yielded […]

    Pingback by Hate speech, revisited | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 24, 2015 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  2. […] predicted by Marx and Lenin, though the author does not share Marx’s enthusiasm for modernity (https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/). I suspect he has been influenced by critical theory that surely dominates the U. of Melbourne, […]

    Pingback by Christos Tsiolkas, the postmodern Balzac? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 12, 2015 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

  3. […] Marx vs. Lenin […]

    Pingback by Reflections on the Ferguson aftermath | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 26, 2014 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

  4. […] would “wither away” ), he brings up earlier forms of human organization (primitivism)—see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/ (the quoted passage from The German Ideology, and my index to blogs on primitivism: […]

    Pingback by Karl Marx on individuality | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 11, 2014 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

  5. It might be worth throwing in here my recollection of a conversation I had with a young South African woman in London in the early 1980s. With quite daring candor, she told me that the problem with the Anti-Apartheid movement was that it was dominated by the African National Congress (ANC) which was in turn dominated by the Communist Party. The ANC was fixated on making the Anti-Apartheid movement an anti-colonial armed struggle, very much along the lines of the guerrilla movement in neighboring Zimbabwe. But Zimbabwe was a rural country and South Africa an industrialized one. So a whole generation had been seduced away from the schoolroom to fight an unnecessary and unwinable bush war.

    Comment by William Saunders — June 8, 2014 @ 8:41 am | Reply

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