I describe myself nowadays as a Socialist or even as a Marxist, but note not a Communist or a Marxist-Leninist. It seems this requires further clarification, but I know of others who similarly describe themselves as Marxists but not Communists.
I departed the British Communist Party in 1976 after two visits to the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). During the last visit to the GDR in 1976 my life-partner, George Miller, accompanied me and pointed out the defects in the system I preferred to ignore or excuse as a temporary aberration.
It took me many years to consolidate my political views and recover from the shattering of my dreams for the world eventually evolving into a self-governing Communist society in which all States had withered away, in which wars would be no more, and in which a classless society would govern themselves without police, judges, courts, prisons or even money. Marx and Engels had given us this vision of a society in which there was an abundance of goods and services, and in which everybody lived by the maxim: ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.
I eventually realized that this utopian dream was totally unrealistic and that, in this world at least, there would always be those who would seek to corrupt any system and gain privileges for themselves and their families. It also became obvious that attempts to clamp down on those seeking to distort Socialism in this way failed, and much worse, it seemed the main victims of Stalinist repression were those who remained true to the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution or who were for genuine freedom of speech and real democracy, albeit under a Socialist Constitution.
Those who sought to usurp the organs or power and use them to award privileges for themselves and their families had no such ideals, so were willing to sway with the political wind, always following the Party line and whoever was the leading comrade. They thus, for the most part, survived the Stalinist purges and all attempts to clamp down on dissent; they paid lip-service to the ideals of the revolution and to the creation of a Communist society.
I still maintain, however, that the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries achieved a great deal, including full employment, education for everyone, homes for everyone at low rents, good publc transport and public services, good health services, and for some at least, a feeling of comradeship between peoples and hope for the future. I also believe that in the years 1989-1991 which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and Socialism in Eastern and Central Europe, opportunities were lost for making the system more democratic. I believe not that they threw out the baby with the bathwater, but in many cases they threw out the Socialist baby and kept the corrupt bathwater. No place was this more obvious than in former Yugoslavia, the most liberal and successful Socialist state in Europe, where the old Communist Party leaders became nationalists overnight and where terrible wars and genocides took place as the country fragmented.
In countries like the GDR and CSSR (Czechoslovakia) there was a ruling coalition headed by the Marxist-Leninist Party but also including many other political parties. It would have been relatively simple to break up these coalitions and allow the individual political parties to put up rival candidates and contest free General Elections held under the Socialist Constitution of these countries. This would have allowed corrupt governments and officials to be voted out, and a new government elected to run their own brand of Socialism. The Socialist Constitution could have been replaced only by a referendum in which a substantial majority would need to vote for a new Constitution. In the one-party states like the USSR, amendments to the Socialist Constitution would have been needed to allow new political organizations and parties to form and contest elections.
Now we come to the question of Marxism, Marxism-Leninism and Communism. I have already said that I now believe Communism, i.e. the utopian Stateless society, is unlikely to evolve anywhere in the near future, if at all. In my view there will always be the need for a State and all its apparatus such as police, judges, courts, prisons, etc. and indeed money or its equivalent and the ability, as Tony Benn said, to elect representatives to governing bodies and to remove them.
However Marxism is not just about creating the utopian society of Communism. Marx’s greatest achievement was probably to describe the surplus value of labor; that workers by hand and brain create surplus value to what they need to subsist and this is what is exploited by capitalism in the form of profits and dividends. It can be demonstrated by the value of, for example, gold. If it remains in the ground it is worthless until miners expend their labor to dig it out of the ground. It is the danger and hard labor involved in digging out this rare commodity which give it its high value. If gold rained down from the skies or grew on trees it would still be pretty and used for jewelry, etc. but would not have much true value at all. Similarly with great works of art and antiques; the labor, often very skilled labor, involved in producing them, much of it unique, give these works and antiques their scarcity value. If machines and computers help produce goods, then it is the labor power involved in their design and manufacture which give the end products their value.
The other important philosophy Marx formulated were the doctrines of Dialectical and Historical Materialism. He showed how society inevitably evolves through stages from primitive tribal society, through feudalism to capitalism and Socialism. He then added the final stage of Communism, which no society has yet achieved, except possibly in small communes and these tended to be temporary before they collapsed or transmuted into something else.
I still believe that the eventual collapse of capitalism is inevitable and that it must be replaced by some sort of Socialism. Wars and dictatorial systems like fascism can delay this evolution, but however long it takes Socialism must come eventually come about.
We now come to the question of Marxism-Leninism. I now believe Lenin, and indeed his close compatriot Leon Trotsky, both betrayed the original ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution and paved the way for the Stalinist terror and all that followed including the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Early in the days of Soviet power the Kronstadt rebellion took place, led by sailors and others seeking to preserve the original ideas of the Revolution. Their demands were quite modest and included the right to organize in trade unions and leftwing political parties, to allow limited private enterprise which did not include hired labor, to a degree of workers’ control (which would eliminate the growing bureaucracy), etc. This rebellion was crushed on the orders of Lenin by Trotsky’s Red Army. For obvious reasons the crushing of this Kronstadt rebellion is not criticized by either Trotskyist organizations nor by the successors to the Stalinist branches of Marxism-Leninism.
As I believe it was Lenin, along with Trotsky, who laid the foundations for a bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Unon and all the horrors which followed, I no longer can describe myself as a Marxist-Leninist. However it can be argued that in adopting the notion of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ Marx and Engels also laid the foundations for the repression which symbolized Soviet-style Socialism, and its most extreme form during the Stalinist eras in several Socialist countries. However the term can be interpreted in several ways. Marx and Engels used it to describe the Socialist era after the collapse of capitalism and that it was necessary to create the classless, self-governing society of Communism proper. By creating a one-Party State the toiling masses would be able to join and by sheer numbers eliminate any attempts to restore capitalism or to corrupt the Socialist system, and eventually create the self-governing, classless society of Communism. This of course never happened as the bureaucratic repression had already been instigated by Lenin and Trotsky, carried to extremes by Stalin, and the corrupted and distorted version of Socialism led to its eventual demise.
There are, however, as I said other interpretations which can be applied to the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, though I dislike the term and would no longer use it as it implies repression of all minorities. Nevertheless democracy itself can be described as ‘the dictatorship of the majority’ and if the majority labor for a living, as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Again the rights of minorities are overlooked in this description. I would therefore now use the term Socialist Democracy to describe the kind of society I would like to see. This would involve, as described above, all political parties and organizations existing side-by-side, able to contest free elections, the ability of the electorate to vote out one government and elect another, freedom of speech and of the Press, but within the confines of a Socialist Constitution which could only be replaced by a substantial majority vote in a Constitutional referendum. In this way Socialism could be enshrined as the basis of society, but corrupt governments could be voted out and another political party voted in to administer Socialism, or indeed their own brand of Socialism. The Soviet model was by no means universal, and Tito in Yugoslavia had a unique system of worker cooperatives which was much more successful. Rather than huge State monopolies operating under cumbersome and inefficient five-year plans, individual companies could also be taken into public ownership with workers’ control and they could compete along with cooperatives in a Socialist market place. State monopolies or nationalization is probably more suitable for the public utilites and transport systems which use national networks or grids which need to be maintained centrally.
So I consider myself a Socialist and a Marxist, but no longer a Marxist-Leninist. I would be quite satisfied if society reached and maintained the Socialist society Marx and others envisaged without the repression of Soviet-style Socialism and with no promise of an eventual Communist society. If that does eventually materialize in this world it would not be for many generations in hundreds or even thousands of years time when humanity has evolved sufficiently to make it practicable.