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II. The Marx–Engels Theory of Communism
III. Communist Ideology in Russia and the Soviet Union: Leninism and Stalinism
IV. Chinese Experience With Communism: Mao Zedong’s Marxist–Leninist Orthodoxy
V. Communist Ideology in 21st-Century Politics
Communist ideology, in the form of its various “brands” (Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism), has had a powerful impact on shaping political realities throughout the 20th century. In fact, the most consequential political events of the past century can neither be explained nor understood without a clear reference to communist ideas and the most significant attempts at their implementation. It is important to understand that the political slate was not just wiped clean with the turn of the millennium. The need for furthering scientific analysis of the communist ideology and the variety of its implementations certainly warrants including this research paper on communism in the political science category.
Today, the term communism is most often used with reference to either the theory by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels or the politico-economic regimes that claimed to use Marxian theory as their foundation. This research paper has four objectives. The first is to briefly summarize the most essential principles and concepts of the original theory as developed by Marx and Engels. The second objective is to outline two interpretations of the Marx–Engels theory, one by Lenin and one by Stalin. The third objective is to compare and contrast the teachings of Mao Zedong1 with the Leninist ideology. Fourth, some of the theoretical lessons from the Soviet and Chinese experiences with communism will be discussed, along with their possible implications for the international political landscape of the 21st century.
II. The Marx–Engels Theory of Communism
The original ideas about eliminating social inequalities and creating a perfectly egalitarian society can be traced back many centuries to ancient Greece (e.g., Hesiod, 1985; Plato, 2006) and to medieval Europe (e.g., Campanella, 2007; More, 2002). Some of these fragmented ideas were finally assembled in the form of a relatively coherent theory by two 19th-century German thinkers, Marx and Engels. Their theory was developed as an intellectual reaction to the socially painful side effects of the 19th-century industrial revolution in advanced Western economies. Their approach encompassed philosophic, political, and economic components that were borrowed from numerous social theories abandoned in preindustrial Europe. Among the thinkers who are known to have had the most powerful influence on Marx and Engels, and who therefore should also be given credit for their contribution to classical Marxism, are German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Ludwig Feuerbach and British political economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, as well as a large group of French social theorists including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Fourier, and Henri Saint-Simon, along with many others.
The term classical Marxism is widely used as a reference to theories, concepts, and ideas expressed in the original works by Marx and Engels. This set of ideas is a very broad and very complex theoretical framework and not a simple single coherent theory, as has sometimes been portrayed by self-proclaimed followers. Also, it is obvious that the generalizations extracted by Marx and Engels from their analysis of 19th-century capitalism in Europe could not easily be used to explain economic and political realities of other times and places. These generalized and dated philosophies have invited a multitude of various interpretations and adaptations, three of which are discussed further in this research paper. Marx and Engels were very prolific writers, and their works take up several volumes of very dense and scrupulous technical prose that would be impossible to properly summarize in this research paper. Therefore, the few theories and concepts outlined here were selected on the basis of their importance for the three ideological brands previously noted.
The theoretical teachings of Marx and Engels contain ideas that can broadly be divided into two general categories. The first is devoted to the critique of the existing socioeconomic regime and attempts to justify the inevitability of capitalism’s demise. The ideas in the second category are directed toward developing a futuristic model of a distinctly modern, fully egalitarian, and therefore more just politico-socioeconomic order. This side of the classical Marxist teachings is rather diluted and full of ambiguities and even contains occasional contradictions. This regime of the future was labeled communism by the authors and stems from the term that originated in revolutionary France in the 1840s. Communism, according to Marx and Engels, would supplant capitalism through the series of social revolutions initiated in the industrialized West and eventually spread throughout the world. Ironically, instead of mobilizing industrial workers within economically advanced countries, the ideas of Marx and Engels ignited revolutionary movements among two preindustrial agrarian societies in the East, first in Russia and later in China.
Two manuscripts stand out among the most influential works by Marx and Engels: the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848/2002) and Capital, Volume I (Marx, 1867/ 1992).2 The former piece, which is often referred to as The Communist Manifesto, is essentially a small brochure of approximately 40 pages that outlined the program of the Communist League, an international organization established in Paris in 1836 as the League of the Just and formally disbanded in 1852. The Communist Manifesto, however, acquired a life of its own and is still referred to as one of the most influential political manuscripts written. In this work, Marx focuses his analysis on the problems of capitalism and lays out the concept of the class struggle. There are few details in The Manifesto with regard to the specific form that communism would take as it replaced the brutal, unfair, and fundamentally controversial capitalism.
The other manuscript critical to understanding the theory of Marx and Engels is Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Marx, 1992, 1993). This document covers some 1,400 pages and is full of specific economic terms and formulas. The first volume of Capital focuses on analysis of capitalist economy, its origins, future, and structural contradictions and the resulting class struggle between workers and owners. Throughout this volume, Marx only vaguely hints at the specifics of how the new just economic order that is supposed to replace capitalism will operate once the industrial working class (the proletariat) frees itself from being exploited by the owners of the means of production (the bourgeoisie). The second and third volumes, which were intended to detail the theory of the postcapitalist method of production, are essentially a collection of Marx’s drafts, sketches, and fragments, edited and compiled by Engels after Marx’s passing. The fact that classical Marxism offered a compelling critique of capitalism but lacked a coherent theory of scientific socialism had attracted numerous interpretations and adaptations not unlike Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism.
The idea of inevitable transition from capitalism to socialism historically stems from an evolutionary process driven by economic development and is the approach that Engels labeled historic materialism. Having been influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, Marx and Engels viewed the development of human society as a progressive succession of politico-economic regimes (economic formations), wherein each succeeding regime is superior to the preceding one in terms of production relations. The concept of production relations pertains to ownership, distribution, and redistribution of product and constitutes the base. Borrowing the materialistic approach of Ludwig Feuerbach and the dialectical approach of Georg Hegel, the founders of Marxism believed that the base is the driving force that eventually leads to change in the superstructure, a particular form of social consciousness that includes legal, political, and cultural institutions that reflect the base. This idea that throughout history in every society, the base has always determined superstructure is often referred to as economic determinism. Together, Marx argued, the base and the corresponding superstructure determine the mode of production, which, in turn, defines the economic formation, a developmental stage in the history of humankind.
Historic materialism is a theoretical perspective of social, political, and economic development that views the history of humankind through the lens of economic determinism. This approach to history portrays the perpetual class struggle between workers and owners over ownership of the means of production as the main driving force behind societal progress. The term means of production refers to physical, nonhuman inputs used in production, such as factories, machines, and tools. According to Marx and Engels, the concept of class struggle plays a central role in explaining society’s alleged inevitable development from economic oppression under capitalism to a classless and propertyless society in which the means of production are owned by an entire society of equals.
Formulation of the theory of social evolution inspired by Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species and analysis of contemporary capitalism were only a prelude to what Marx and Engels claimed was their main discovery: the finality of the class society. According to their teachings, capitalism is the last of its kind, that is, the last in the succession of economic formations based on economic exploitation. The collapse of capitalism as a result of a proletarian revolution will become the beginning of a new, highest, and final stage in the development of humankind, the creation of a perfectly just society in which labor is reconciled with the means of production and, therefore, economic exploitation is no longer possible. According to Marx, it would also mean the end of history.
To conclude this brief overview of classical Marxism, it might be useful to mention the main features that made this theoretical framework so attractive to its followers. One of the main appeals of the theory of Marx and Engels to their followers was its ability to explain (and capitalize on) the painful social dislocations indicative of the industrializing capitalist societies of 19th-century Europe. Some of the predictions with regard to capitalist economies appeared to be coming true, such as Marx’s claim that the contradictory nature of the capitalist economy leads to periodic crises. According to Marx, over time these crises would become more protracted and eventually would become fatal to capitalism itself. Although it is true that industrialized countries seem to be prone to periodic crises, none of them has (as of yet) resulted in a social breakdown.
The forward-looking character of Marxian predictions with regard to the future establishment of the perfectly egalitarian, classless, and propertyless social order has certainly encouraged many people in countries such as czarist Russia and post-imperial China who struggled with industrialization in part because of their traditional backward-looking culture. Also, the international or ethnoneutral character of communist teachings, which imply that the main irreconcilable contradictions are between proletariat and bourgeoisie, not between ethnic groups, lends itself as a solid foundation for unifying people of various origins under one leadership.
III. Communist Ideology in Russia and the Soviet Union: Leninism and Stalinism
Leninism has been a dominant branch of Marxism for most of the 20th century. This offshoot of communist ideology was named after Vladimir Lenin,3 who was the mastermind of the Russian revolution in 1917 and became the founder of the Soviet Union in 1922. Unlike theory-inspired classical Marxism, Leninism developed as a result of practical efforts to apply the teachings of Marx and Engels to Russian conditions. Lenin’s manuscripts, therefore, are focused on practical solutions to specific problems of organizing a successful revolution and building a socialistic economy and state.
One of the most significant departures of Leninism from the doctrines of Marx and Engels was its claim of revolutionary potentials for Russia’s peasantry, the poor who represented the rural population and were largely employed in traditional agricultural production. To justify the inevitability of socialist revolution in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, where industrial labor still constituted a small minority of the working class, Lenin had to get creative. In his well-known manuscript titled What Is to Be Done? (1902/2002), published 15 years prior to the Revolution of 1917, Lenin proclaimed that peasantry is essentially the agrarian proletariat, which could be inspired by professional revolutionaries (such as Lenin himself) to join the industrial workers in deposing the imperial government, taking power, and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat,4 the temporary state that facilitates transition from capitalism to communism.
To describe Russia’s peasants at the end of the 19th century as the agrarian proletariat was not just conceptual stretching but an outright subversion of the truth. The majority of them were loyal to the monarchy and the Orthodox Church and, as of 1916, owned 89.1% of the agricultural land in European Russia. This does not mean, however, that peasants were satisfied with the regime. Traditional agricultural production under the difficult climate conditions, paired with a growing rural population, was failing to sustain the livelihood of peasant communities, causing chronic food shortages and periodic famines during the years when the climate was especially unfavorable. Episodes of civil unrest were severely suppressed by the extreme autocratic regime, which maintained a tight grip over the vast Russian Empire through its extensive bureaucratic apparatus, the police, and the army.
An interesting and not widely known, but well-documented, fact about Lenin’s passion for his revolutionary activities was that he was motivated, not by sympathy for the poor, but rather by his hatred for the existing social and political order in Russia (Pipes, 2001). Born into the family of a high-ranking civil servant who was awarded hereditary nobility, Lenin had personal reasons to become embittered toward the regime, which in 1887 executed his older brother, Alexander, for involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Czar Alexander III Romanov and expelled young Lenin from the University of Kazan for participation in a minor student disturbance, ruining his hopes for a career as a lawyer.
Another significant departure from the teachings of Marx and Engels was Lenin’s original idea that a vanguard party formed of professional revolutionaries, who did not belong to the working class themselves and whose revolutionary aspirations, therefore, would be untainted by the trade union mind-set, would lead the proletarian revolution. This departure had consequences that reached far beyond the Russian and Chinese revolutions to inspire followers of Marxist ideology later in the 20th century, such as Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro.
The idea of the vanguard party as an architect of the social revolution became closely related to the central doctrine of Leninism: bolshevism.5 This doctrine represented Leninism’s most significant departure from the teachings of Marx and Engels because it proposed to organize the party in a military-like fashion with a strict chain of command, a membership requirement of full-time commitment to revolutionary activities, and a top-down approach to the working masses, who needed to be “educated” and guided toward a violent power takeover. Bolshevism, as it was developed by Lenin in the years prior to 1917, essentially represented a very selective approach to classical Marxism. Unlike Marx, who put the main emphasis on natural historical development driven by economic determinism, Lenin argued that Russia did not have to undergo “bourgeois” revolution and should not allow capitalism to develop fully before it would be ready for a socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the early 20th century, many European supporters of the ideas of Marx and Engels were wondering why capitalism had not collapsed in accordance with the main prediction of the socialist dogma. Lenin’s answer to this question came in the form of a new theory. In 1916 and 1917, he wrote a book titled Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1999), in which he argued that advanced capitalist countries, in their futile attempts to avoid perpetual economic crises, engage in colonizing or imposing economic dependence on less developed countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By gaining access to the markets in these countries and exploiting their labor and natural resources, the imperial powers try to prop up their ailing economies and buy off their industrial workers. Lenin insisted that this strategy was yet more evidence of capitalism’s decay and simply postponed the inevitable change to socialism.
Russia’s economic situation worsened dramatically in 1914 as it became involved in World War I. Rampant inflation and food and fuel shortages, paired with rumors of government inefficiency and corruption, created a great deal of internal discontent on the part of peasants, industrial workers, and intellectuals from the middle and upper classes. The autocratic rule of Czar Nicholas II was rapidly losing its legitimacy among all layers of the Russian society, and Lenin’s position on war was uncompromising. Lenin claimed that war between the nations had to be turned into a war between the social classes. Workers should turn their weapons against their exploiters and place their power in the hands of the only party that claimed to truly represent their interests, the Bolsheviks.
Observing the devastating effects that World War I had on Russia’s economic and social life, Lenin developed yet another reality-inspired theory, which he called the theory of the revolutionary situation, in which he further discussed one of his fundamental works, The State and the Revolution (Lenin, 1917/1993). According to the theory of the revolutionary situation, three conditions must be present for a revolution to be successful: (1) a profound crisis within the powers that be, (2) unusual hardships suffered by the working people, and (3) a sharp spike in social unrest and political involvement by the masses. Despite the fact that Russia, during the years 1916 and 1917, met all three of these conditions, the revolution that happened in early March of 1917 was nothing that Lenin had expected or wanted. Hunted by the Russian imperial police, he watched from abroad as the events in Russia unfolded and did not return to Petrograd until July of 1917.
After the Russian army, which was poorly supplied and staffed primarily with a group of rebellious peasant draftees, suffered a series of defeats on the German front, Czar Nicholas II was pressured by his generals to abdicate his power in order to save Russia from defeat. Political power was then assumed by a group of parliamentary deputies, who called themselves the Provisional Government. The socialist-minded opposition within the Russian parliament, together with politically active Petrograd intellectuals, created a concurrent institution, the Soviet. This was a council of workers and soldier representatives who intended to serve as a “watchdog” over the actions of the Provisional Government. These developments created a regime of dual power under which the Soviet relentlessly criticized and undermined the authority of the Provisional Government without being held responsible for the consequences of its decisions and actions. The collapse of the autocratic monarchy, which had imposed unity on the Russian Empire for centuries through a combination of traditional legitimacy and forceful oppression, submerged Russia into anarchy.
In the fall of 1917, the Provisional Government lost all support from the Russian army’s leadership, and the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin worked hard to convince his followers and other factions in the Soviet to seize the opportunity and take power, and as a result, a coup took place on November 7, 1917. To disguise the seizure of power by one party and himself as the leader of this party, Lenin put forth the slogan “All Power to the Soviets,” which promised the relinquishing of state authority to the chain of newly established grassroots organizations throughout Russia (the Soviets), which at the time attracted the loyalties of the working masses and rebellious soldiers. The first two pieces of legislation written by Lenin and adopted by the new regime were the Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land. The former announced Russia’s immediate withdrawal from World War I and its concession to most of Germany’s territorial demands. The latter abolished private ownership of land and announced a redistribution to the peasantry of land owned by nobility, the Orthodox Church, and the monasteries. As naive as that legislation was, it, along with other freedoms (press, religion, the formation of political organizations, etc.), evoked widespread support for the Bolsheviks among the uneducated masses of peasants, the war-tired soldiers, and the small layers of industrial workers who, at the time, represented less than 2% of Russia’s population.
There is minor disagreement among scholars with regard to the motivation behind the next several steps undertaken by the Bolshevik-led government. Some of the scholars, whose views are well articulated by Richard Pipes (2001), argue that the dictatorship and totalitarian regime established in Russia in 1918 represented the original intent of Lenin and his supporters. Another group of researchers and Lenin’s biographers, however, maintain that Lenin’s ideal of a workers’ democratic state was shattered against the harsh reality of civil war and foreign intervention that engulfed Russia shortly after the Bolshevik-controlled Soviets took power (Hesli, 2007). Whatever Lenin’s original intent was, in 1918 in his famous work The Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky (Lenin, 1969), he completely discarded any possibility of achieving the communist ideals through a peaceful democratic process, conveniently forgetting that in their last years, Marx and especially Engels came to recognize that possibility.
For more than 2 years after the November revolution, Russia was engulfed by civil war. Coupled with the Bolsheviks’ War Communism—a program of forced nationalization, grain requisitions, and labor mobilization—the civil war of 1918 to 1921 resulted in economic devastation and consolidation of political power in the hands of the Soviets. Succumbing to the increasing threat of massive peasant uprising and the Kronstadt Revolt, the 10th Congress of the Communist Party, guided by Lenin, inaugurated the New Economic Policy (NEP). This was the beginning of a period when the extremely coercive Bolshevik state was transformed into a much less violent set of regulatory institutions that finally were able to establish a relative monopoly on the use of force. During this brief interlude between the civil war of 1918 and Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s, Russia began acquiring some basic features of a modernizing state.
The NEP was essentially a package of economic policies that provided for basic economic freedom of enterprise in strictly limited areas and aimed at giving a chance for the economy to recover, resume growth, and end famine. According to Lenin himself, the NEP represented a tactical temporary retreat toward capitalism. Essentially the newly established Soviet state was forced to make a political compromise in order to survive the devastation brought on by civil war and the politics of War Communism. The Soviets loosened restrictions on small private industrial enterprises and substituted requisitions of agricultural produce from the peasants for a tax with a rate known in advance. It is important to point out that in spite of significant economic freedoms during the NEP years, the state maintained full political control and kept exclusive hold on the commanding heights of the economy, including finance, large and medium industry, modern transportation, foreign trade, and wholesale commerce. These policies stimulated the economic recovery in agriculture and small manufacturing, as well as the state-controlled industries. The temporary drift toward partial decentralization did not just allow the Russian economy to recover but also provided an opportunity for the Communist Party—now the sole power holder—to regroup and shift gears from a struggle for power during the civil war to peacetime governance.
The first Soviet constitution of 1918, drafted by Lenin, created the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, which territorially was just a shadow of the vast Romanov empire. A quasi-federalist structure of the Soviet Union, which included Russia, Ukraine, White Russia (now Belarus), and Transcaucasia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), was established on December 30, 1922, and sealed by the second Soviet constitution in 1924. This arrangement was the result of a Lenin-inspired compromise between the Bolshevik desires for strong central control and the national independence movements in the borderlands. This new arrangement resurrected czarist policies of Russification toward ethnic minorities such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Adygs, Cherkes, Chukchas, and many others (more than a hundred in total; McAuley, 1992).
Stalin consolidated power after Lenin’s death in 1924 and quickly proceeded to build the basis for his own autocracy by crushing his real and even potential political opponents inside the party. He abruptly discontinued any economic freedoms granted by the NEP and moved to full centralization of the state, accompanied by massive repressions of various population groups. Essentially, the public sector of the economy was consuming the private sector, first through industrialization of manufacturing and then through the massive, forceful collectivization of agriculture. The private sector quickly disappeared as the majority of the Soviet citizens had become state employees by being forced to join collective and state farms or being sent to the numerous forced labor camps (Pipes, 2001).
Massive centralization of the Soviet state took place during the last decade before World War II. Many regulatory state agencies were quickly changing into repressive machinery, which grew significantly in size as the number of citizens classified as enemies of the people reached millions. The most prominent among the governmental agencies involved in purges was the political police, known since 1934 as the Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennih Del (better known by its initials, NKVD, and which translates into English as People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), which guarded and administered forced labor camps. The culture of fear formed during the Great Purge of the 1930s created a foundation for what appeared to be a total control of the state (with Stalin as the head of state) over society. This control was achieved through mobilization of the country in a quasi-military manner and at the cost of great suffering by the Soviet people. Although some population groups were affected by particularly acute purges, prosecutions affected virtually all Party organizations, government branches, and the army (Conquest, 1985).
One of the most prominent aspects of Stalin’s legacy became the phenomenon subsequently labeled his cult of personality. Essentially, it was a subculture that portrayed Stalin as an omnipresent, omnipotent, and infallible godlike figure and that remained intact through his death in 1953. One of the many explanations of the cult-of-personality phenomenon common to most Communist regimes has to do with the fact that in premodern traditional societies (such as Russia and China in the first half of the 20th century), it was natural to attribute divine qualities to political leaders. This property has been frequently exploited by the Communist leaders themselves to make up for the lack of legitimacy of their totalitarian states.
Stalin’s brand of Communism acquired yet another peculiar feature, which set it apart even further from classical Marxism and to some extent from Leninism as well. Stalin was first among Communists to attempt to capitalize on nationalist sentiments and xenophobia to inspire passionate compliance among the masses and to promote fearful obedience among minorities. Classical Marxism viewed nationalism as one of the tricks that the bourgeoisie used to deflect the proletariat from forming a unified front in its quest to put an end to social injustices and economic exploitation. Lenin early in his political career saw nationalism as a hindrance to the destruction of the old regime, but later he attempted to embrace it as one of the state-building tools. Stalin, however, recognized nationalism’s superior potential to unify masses of certain ethnic descent. Compared with vague ideas of international Communism, nationalism and especially xenophobia became a much more efficient way of appealing to the raging emotions of the majority and inspiring fear and slavish compliance among the minorities. As time went on, Stalin aligned himself with Russian chauvinism,8 aiming his repressive governmental machine at various minorities in Russia, especially the Jews. Very quickly he realized that this political posture also offered an outlet for blaming any failure of his despotic regime on ethnically distinct groups within the population. Many of the Communist leaders since Stalin have attempted and often succeeded in playing the nationalist card to exploit its centrifugal potentials to justify their oppressive regimes.
Stalin’s reign before and after World War II became the time when the Soviet state acquired the general structure and long-standing traditions that remained essentially the same until its demise in 1991 (Kryshtanovskaya, 2004). The 1936 Stalin constitution was not revised until 1977, despite significant changes in the economy, state–society relations, internal political climate, and international affairs. Even four decades after Stalin’s constitution was written, the new edition of the constitution written under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev still did not contain any provisions requiring a major reorganizing effort. Rather it emphasized continuing “glorious” traditions of the past. Comparative literature in Soviet politics points toward a number of factors contributing to this continuity of the Soviet regime. Many of these factors have to do with various aspects of widespread corruption in the Soviet political system, which had its origins in the first few decades after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established and which reached its peak under Brezhnev (Kaminski, 1989). The establishment of a single-party system during Lenin’s period shielded the Communist Party from the possibility of facing any external political opposition and effectively disabled electoral institutions. Stalin’s purges did away with the party’s internal opposition, any effective division of powers, and plurality of opinions within the society. Brezhnev’s “contribution” to this political culture of institutional decay and disregard for the written laws was a system of patronage based on personal loyalties and unlimited tenure in office at all levels of party and state hierarchies. In essence, if Stalin resurrected the czarist autocracy, Brezhnev reintroduced the decision-making methods of premodern elements into the state organizations (Simis, 1982).
IV. Chinese Experience With Communism: Mao Zedong’s Marxist–Leninist Orthodoxy
According to Isaac Deutcher (1966), a well-known and respected British historian, the communist revolution in China of 1947 can be classified as one of the ironies of his tory. “Lacking any native ancestry [with regard to socialist or communist philosophy], Chinese Communism descends straight from Bolshevism. Mao stands on Lenin’s shoulders” (Deutcher, 1966, p. 90). This statement reflects a generally accepted notion among Western researchers, as well as among the followers of Chairman Mao, that Maoism is a direct descendant of Marxism–Leninism. However, a group of scientists who looked beyond the general similarities argued that Maoism departs from Leninism as Leninism departs from Marxism (Meisner, 1971, 1982; Pfeffer, 1976). Essentially, what makes Maoism an offshoot of Leninism and not a direct descendant of Marxism is its pragmatism or willingness to modify and even subvert theory in the face of realities and the inclination to accept that the ends would always justify the means. According to the researchers that view Leninism and Maoism as deviants from Marxism, Lenin and Mao took Marx’s ideas out of a time- and space-relevant political context and attempted to forcefully fast-forward history into the distant future that Marx had predicted.
Born in 1893 in the family of a wealthy Chinese farmer, Mao Zedong had always displayed an emotional attachment to and naive fascination with the traditional Chinese peasantry. In fact, both aforementioned groups of Chinese political researchers share an understanding that the question of the peasant’s role in the communist revolution is the main deviation of Maoism from its Marxist-Leninist origins. This issue is crucial to an understanding of the Chinese brand of communism because it has a direct impact on the central concepts of this ideology, such as the class struggle and the relationship that should exist between the working class and its leading party. Lenin saw the Communist Party as the main source of revolutionary consciousness destined to save the proletariat from what he called the trade union mind set. He defined this concept of trade union mind-set as the willingness to change political and economic institutions to be more favorable to the working class through evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. Maoism puts even more emphasis on revolution as the only instrument suitable to achieve the true change of a regime. The most striking evidence of this was Mao’s policy of continuous revolution, which he put forth 10 years after coming to power in 1947.
Mao and his followers also adopted three other key elements of Lenin’s version of Marxism. The first was the Marxian explanation of historical development (economic determinism) as amended by Lenin with the concept of the Communist Party as the sole agent of change toward the final stage of politico-economic development. Chinese communists also borrowed much of Lenin’s practical recommendations with regard to the vanguard party’s organizational principles, such as democratic centralism.
The second crucial feature of Leninism integrated into the core set of Maoist writs is Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the highest and final stage of capitalist development. With the breakup of the colonial system after the end of World War II, assisting anti-imperialist forces in the third world appeared to be a significantly more feasible foreign policy to both communist countries—the Soviet Union and China—at the time. As their relationship with each other deteriorated, their resolve to sway the former colonies in Asia and Africa toward a specific brand of communism (the Soviet or the Chinese) became almost as intense as their desire to steer them away from the capitalist path of development. North Korea (and later Vietnam) became the primary battlefields for the ideological struggle. Mao’s ambitions in the third world brought very modest rewards at best. The People’s Republic of China could not afford to devote the necessary (and ever-increasing) quantities of economic resources required to pursue his costly and far-reaching ambitions. Third world leaders, who were willing to auction off their countries’ developmental paths to the highest bidder, lacked devotion to a specific ideology and were easily overthrown by domestic political forces.
The third important element that links Maoism and Marxism–Leninism has to do with the conviction that to prevent counterrevolution, the communist regime had to engage in ruthless demolition of the entire institutional structure of the previous regime. However, Mao Zedong took this rather extreme principle even further by initiating assault on the newly established institutional structure of the People’s Republic of China during a crusade labeled the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1968). This crusade targeted any existing form of authority (government, party, family), with the sole exception of Mao’s personal leadership, and essentially was undertaken in retaliation for the failed attempt to overcome economic backwardness during the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), which claimed millions of lives and submerged China’s economy into chaos. This succession of socioeconomic experiments did not come to a halt until Mao’s death in 1976.
V. Communist Ideology in 21st-Century Politics
The three most consequential brands of communist ideology surveyed here have posed many questions and presented many issues to historians and political researchers. In an attempt to draw political lessons from the Soviet and Chinese experiences, it is important to remember that, like any political phenomenon, communism emerged in response to time-specific political processes such as the industrial revolution during the second half of the 19th century. It had the explicit intent of communicating the political interests of industrial workers, whose basic needs were neglected by the existing politico-economic order, to the power-holding political elite.
When discussing the implications of communist ideology for the political landscape of the 21st century, one cannot avoid making analytical distinctions between the original idea of creating a perfectly egalitarian, economically just society, a political program put forth by Marx and Engels, and the numerous attempts at practical implementation. Most likely, the communist idea will continue to emerge in a variety of ideological forms as long as there are economic disparities, which can be perceived as injustices by various individuals, social groups, and even whole nations. The Marxist political program, which was created specifically to address social dislocations of 19th-century industrialization in advanced Western countries, had certainly become outdated in the 20th century, which prompted a number of political entrepreneurs, including Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, to reinterpret and rebrand it. Finally, the discussed earlier attempts to establish regimes based on the communist idea and the program of Marx and Engels have had a lasting effect on the power distribution within the international system. The emergence and later disappearance of the Soviet Union as one of the two global superpowers resulted in a unipolar world, which according to some experts is a much less stable arrangement than the bipolar world of the cold war era. Today’s China is often characterized as a rising global economic power although it is still debated whether this economic wonder came about because of communist rule or in spite of it.
The question that many experts on communist and postcommunist politics have been trying to answer is whether the failure of communism was a result of faulty attempts at its implementation or an unrealistic societal model that was doomed to fail from the time it was first conceived. Even though opinions are mixed with regard to assigning blame, many scholars favor the latter view. To quote Pipes (2001), “Communism was not a good idea that went wrong; it was a bad idea” (p. 147). But some scholars are quick to point out that each and every one of the communist regimes was forced, in the face of political realities, to depart significantly from both the utopian communist ideal and the dogma of Marx and Engels in order to survive as long as it did. Having said that, however, the interests that brought this idea to life and made it popular enough to have a lasting and irreversible impact on millions and millions of lives cannot be simply dismissed from the political stage. Even though virtually all the communist regimes failed before the end of the same century in which they had emerged, there is no guarantee that the quest for perfect social equality is over.
The implosion of the Soviet regime became a textbook example of the ideological bankruptcy of Marxism– Leninism. Stalinism had discredited itself and decomposed even prior to the Soviet collapse. Even though today’s People’s Republic of China still claims the title of a communist regime, its practice of socialist market economy is largely based on private ownership of the means of production and has much more in common with leading capitalist economies than with other past or existing communist regimes.
The four major goals outlined at the beginning of this research paper were to (1) summarize Marxian theory, (2) position the ideological interpretations of Lenin and Stalin with respect to the original Marxian teachings, (3) compare the Maoist philosophy with the major premises of Marxism–Leninism, and (4) evaluate the sociopolitical implications of the experiments with communist ideals in Russia and China for the political landscape of the 21st century. The first section of the research paper focused on the major premises of the theoretical works of Marx and Engels. It highlighted the sketchy character of the Marxian vision of the future, which leaves ample room for further interpretations and study by anyone willing to test it empirically by conducting social experiments. The second section of this research paper examined the two versions of such social experiments conducted by Vladimir Lenin and subsequently by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th century. The focus of the third section was the Chinese interpretation of communist ideals by Mao Zedong in the second half of the 20th century. A special effort has been made to distinguish between the original Marxian ideas, the teachings of Lenin, and the “insights” of Mao. Finally, the fourth section aimed at assessing the ideological impact of communist ideology and its practical applications on the political landscape of the 21st century.
Since the November Revolution of 1917 in Russia, there have been dozens of attempts throughout the world to establish regimes based on various interpretations of the communist principles formulated by Marx and Engels. Virtually all of them have failed. The three most consequential attempts for world politics were those of Leninism and Stalinism in Russia and Maoism in China. Most researchers conclude that Marxism, the theoretical foundation of communism, contained the seeds of its own demise. Based on faulty views of history, unrealistic economic foundations, and unscientific psychological doctrines, this ideology had a power to inspire but lacked coherence to deliver on its promises. Every one of the numerous attempts to use it as a blueprint had to rely on ruthless coercion, imposing enormous social, economic, and psychological costs on the societies that bought into a Marxist vision of the future.
It is important to understand that none of the social self-proclaimed followers of the communist ideology diligently followed all the guidelines outlined by Marx and Engels. Even the most basic premise that transition to communism would take place in economically advanced industrialized countries was violated in every one of the attempts to apply the Marxian doctrine. Also, Marx and Engels could not possibly be specific enough and could not predict the enormous number of specific issues that their practice-driven disciples were encountering. These ambiguities within Marxian dogma spawned a number of ideological “brands” that in various degrees departed from the original, but all of them had to rely heavily on coercion.
To sum up the features of the aforementioned ideologies that qualified them as interpretations of Marxism one would have to mention the contention of private property and the notion of human nature as fundamentally malleable through coercion and education, as well as superficial emphasis on the material side of societal existence. Of the three attempts to build communism, Leninism was the most willing to accommodate realities of political, economic, and social processes, as the discussion of the NEP has illustrated. Stalinism was slightly more practice driven, possibly because of Stalin’s limited talents for theoretical thinking. The cult of personality, xenophobia, and morbid bureaucratization, typical to a certain extent of all the communist regimes, were taken by Stalin to an extreme level. Divine status of the beloved leader and encouraged disregard for any other form of authority became the most prominent features of Maoism.
- Because of transliteration, different spellings of this name have been proposed (e.g., Mao Tse Tung, and Máo Zédōng). Mao Zedong is commonly used in the most recent literature.
- Capital, Volume II, and Capital, Volume III, were posthumously published by Engels in 1885 and 1894, respectively.
- Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870 1924) is better known under his revolutionary pseudonym, Lenin, which he was using to escape prosecution by the Russian imperial police for his revolutionary activities prior to 1917.
- This term was first used by Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program (1875).
- Bolshevik can be translated literally from Russian as “majority.” The term was coined by Lenin’s supporters, who constituted the majority after the split of the Social Democratic Party in 1903. The party members who disagreed with Lenin had to accept the title Mensheviks, meaning “minority.” They argued that socialist revolution had to originate from a grassroots movement within the working class.
- In August 1914, as Russia entered into war with Germany, the name of the Russian capital was changed from the Germanic St. Petersburg into the more Russian equivalent, Petrograd. After the death of Lenin, the city was renamed once again as Leningrad in 1925. The original name of St. Petersburg was restored in 1991.
- Prior to 1918, Russia followed the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, which the rest of Europe used. The Bolsheviks’ revolution took place on the night of November 7 (Gregorian calendar), which is equivalent to October 25 (Julian calendar), and this explains why the November coup is sometimes called the “October Revolution.”
- This was ironic because Stalin himself was ethnically Georgian and not specifically Russian.
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