The Philosophy of Communism

The philosophy of communism is a revised version of Marxism, largely the work of Lenin and therefore often called “Marxism-Leninism.” Trotsky’s part in it, which was in fact considerable, is systematically denied or obscured by communist writers because of his later expulsion from the party. The official definition of Lenin’s relation to Marx, stated by Stalin in his Foundations of Leninism (1924), is that Leninism is Marxism in the epoch of imperialism and the proletarian revolution.


Emphasis is thus put upon Lenin’s writings and speeches during World War and after the communist revolution in Russia in 1917. The implication of Stalin’s definition is, therefore, that Lenin’s revisions were occasioned by the evolution of European capitalism after the publication of Capital (1867), especially its colonial expansion and hence its supposed responsibility for the war of 1914, in the same essay Stalin mentioned another interpretation of Lenin’s philosophy, that it was an adaptation of Marxism to the state of affairs in Russia, which Stalin of course rejected, because it reduced Leninism to a merely local ideological adaptation of Marx.

Nevertheless, the latter interpretation has often been repeated by non-communist writers, because in 1914 Lenin had been for a dozen years or more a leader of one wing of Russian Marxism, and most of what he had written up to that time had in fact dealt with the problems of a Russian party.

Both these interpretations of Lenin contain elements of truth but neither states adequately the tremendous importance of his version of Marxism. Besides, though the two interpretations seem to be independent or even opposed, they are, surprisingly, rather closely connected. That Lenin’s mind was continually absorbed, both before and after 1914, with the problems of a Russian revolutionary party is too obvious to need emphasis. It is also true the war turned his attention to imperialism, but his writings on this subject were not in fact very original, for he borrowed extensively from earlier writers, both Marxist and non-Marxist, who often gave a more incisive scientific analysis of the growth of capitalism than Lenin’s.

As usual Lenin was almost exclusively interested in the tactical side of imperialism the opportunities it offered to a revolutionary leader-and the war had the effect of opening his eyes to the possibilities provided by the discontent and the national aspirations of the colonial peoples. To this Lenin’s experience as a leader of Russian revolutionary socialism proved to be directly relevant. For what Lenin accomplished in Russia was to make Marxism succeed in a country that was relatively undeveloped industrially, with a chiefly agrarian economy and a largely peasant population, a kind of country which had always been Impervious to the Marxism of Western Europe.

Conditions that Lenin faced In Russia Were broadly characteristic of backward and colonial countries the world over; consequently his adaptation of Marxism to Russia turned out to be an adaptation of it to the age of imperialism, not because he made Marxism adaptable to the imperialist countries themselves, but because his methods were effective in the colonial dependencies of imperialist countries. This, of course, was not what Stalin meant, but it made his interpretation more or less true.

As a class the underdeveloped countries had small but powerful European minorities that might be able to control their politics and manage their economies; they had national aspirations and they suffered from economic needs that made industrialization almost an imperative; they were under a strong impulsion to adopt Russian methods as a way of getting large results at a rapid rate; and they had no political tradition or organization that might act as a brake on the use of methods that exacted an exorbitant human cost.

Lenin’s success in Russia had a powerful attraction for such countries. Leninism can therefore best be defined as an adaptation of Marxism to non-industrialized economies and to societies with a prevailingly peasant population; its worldwide importance depends on the fact that the world is full of such societies.

Marxism always played two roles for Lenin and it continues to do the same in communism. In one of its roles Marxism was for Lenin kind of creed or religious symbol, the object of unquestioning belief and therefore a dogma; in this role Marxism supplies to communion the adhesive power of a faith or a commonly held ideal. Thus Lenin often supported a policy by quoting a phrase or a sentence from Marx which would serve as a slogan and which he could attach to the policy by a kind of scholastic exegesis.

Contrariwise he often condemned an opponent’s policy by arguing that it was contrary to something in Marx, much as some religious fundamentalists use texts from the Bible. The most frequent and the bitterest charges that Lenin hurled at other Marxists and his life was filled with such controversies-was that they were adulterating.

Marx’s meaning as this was revealed by a literal and correct interpretation of the text. Some of the general tenets of Marx’s philosophy Lenin really did believe in this unquestioning way, such as, for example, the absolute necessity of a social revolution or the absolute certainty that the revolution would create a communist society without the evils of capitalism. Beliefs like this were for him imply matters of faith, and in this quasi-religious role Marxism was the object of his total dedication; making the revolution was for him a moral imperative.

At the same time Marxism played for Lenin a different role, like Marx himself, he always said that philosophy Should be a guide to action. In this role Marxism was not a static bow of rules but a collection of suggestive ideas that could be used in analyzing a situation, assessing its possibilities, and thus arriving at the most effective course of action. There is no reason to doubt that Lenin, did use Marxism in this way.

All his life he was an intensive student not only of everything that Marx and Engels wrote but also of the large, literature by Marxian scholars in German as well as Russian. In this practical role Lenin’s Marxism was highly flexible. In the eyes of more conventional Marxists his practices were often wholly unorthodox, and they returned with interest his charges of adulterating Marx. There was almost no important political decision of his career that was not condemned, often by members of his own party, as bad Marxism, Thus Lenin combined the most rigid orthodoxy in doctrine with great flexibility in practice.

In fact his practice often preceded his theories, but his orthodoxy prevented him from candidly acknowledging the changes he was making in his Marxian source. Characteristically he tied the two together with an interpretation designed to show that Marx always really meant what Lenin had decided he ought to mean in the case at hand. This is not an uncommon way by which people, who are very dogmatic but also quite practical and intelligent adjust their scruples to what they mean to do.

The transition from the theory and practice of Marxism in the parties of Western Europe to what finally emerged as the theory and practice of Soviet Marxism could never have been made at a bound. It was made by meeting problems special to Russia as they became pressing. The Russian leaders started with the presumption that the great Social Democratic Party in Germany was a model to be followed, but frequently this was impossible.

Both Lenin and Trotsky, in their capacity as Russian revolutionists, were often hampered by their loyalty to the traditions of Western Marxism, and even after they had convinced themselves of the need to depart from it, their most difficult task was often to convert their own followers.

The formation of Leninism therefore took place step wise; it consisted in finding workable policies as problems arose and then fitting the policy as well as possible into the framework of Marxism. In order to understand the completed structure, therefore, it is necessary to keep in mind both the state of affairs imposed on a Marxian party in Russia and also the underlying assumptions and convictions and dogmas that their loyalty to Marxism imposed on the Russian leaders.

What finally came out of the process was a resultant of both factors, never planned as a whole by any one. Their theorizing was often improvisation, for meeting the problems imposed by Russia was a condition of their survival, but they improvised always from a base, and that base was their Marxian philosophy, This chaster will follow in a generally chronological order the major steps by which the theory of Soviet Marxism was constructed.

Leave a Comment