Making Marxist education a priority

Paul B Smith replies to James Turley

Do the organised groups of the left inhibit or facilitate the development of a Marxist perspective? Readers of this newspaper may be familiar with the argument that most groups have in one way or another adapted to a Stalinist or Labourist environment. Although they purport to be ‘socialist’, ‘communist’ or ‘Marxist’ political parties (or the embryos of such), they promote policies and practices that delay or prevent the emergence of a proletarian movement for communism. This is the opposite of the role they are designed to play - one of enabling and accelerating the revolutionary process.

Commodity fetishism and Stalinism

Sympathies with this argument influenced the writing of two pieces that appeared here recently (‘A Marxist culture free from the taint of Stalinism’, February 24; ‘Stalinist barriers to study and thought’, March 3). In these articles I tried to explain the neglect of the study of Marxist literature (and the anti-Marxist culture that supports it). I gave two reasons for this. The first was the role commodity fetishism plays. I described the latter as the source of the ideology that keeps capitalism in place. Aspects of this ideology include assumptions that capitalism has existed and will continue to exist for all time; that market forces operate independently of individuals’ actions; that workers are powerless to challenge capitalism; and that humans are inherently selfish, vicious and competitive.

The second reason I gave was the legacy of Stalinism. I mentioned that most people do not distinguish between Marxism and Stalinism. Stalinism made the idea of communism repulsive to workers. It dressed up anti-Marxism as Marxism. It replaced Marxism with two sterile dogmas: ‘histmat’ (historical materialism) and ‘diamat’ (dialectical materialism). Stalin made a scientific understanding of Soviet-type regimes impossible by deleting the concept of the surplus product from Soviet discourse. I described the damage the Stalinist philosopher, Louis Althusser, did to the coherence of Marx’s work with his claim that there is an “epistemological break” between the early humanist Marx and the later anti-humanist Marx. I argued that the objections directed at Marxism by thinkers such as Karl Popper are true of Stalinist dogma, but not of Marxism.

I concluded that the fusion of commodity fetishism with Stalinism has created institutional barriers to the study and comprehension of Marxism. These include an education system dominated by the needs of the market and industry, and the absence of a vital movement for socialism. These barriers are temporary and the conditions for overcoming them are now emerging, as universities come under attack and leftwing groups formed during the Stalinist period disintegrate and collapse.


James Turley has both developed my argument and attempted to prove its opposite - that there is a positive side to Stalinism (‘Fighting Stalinism politically’, May 5). He reminds readers that Stalinism continues to have a catastrophic effect on leftwing politics. Ostensibly anti-Stalinist groups and individuals have adapted to and reproduce Stalinist policies, forms of organisation and practices. He targets popular frontism, bureaucratic centralism and nationalism as results of acculturalisation to Stalinism. The effect has been class-collaboration and reformism. He suggests that these patterns of thought and practice are still with us today. They need to be challenged politically and intellectually.

In my experience, these challenges emerge out of discussion and debate. A recent example taken from the Weekly Worker is Eddie Ford’s arguments for an Arab revolution in the Middle East. Correspondents have criticised this as the return of nationalism and the Stalinist two-stage theory - a first stage of democracy and a second stage of socialism. They argue that workers’ election of managers at the workplace level without a socialist seizure of power would be repressed mercilessly by the ruling class. Another well challenged example of Stalinist adaptation is the Scottish Socialist Party’s advocacy of independence as the first stage of a socialist revolution. This adaptation emerged out of a Stalinised reading of John Maclean’s call for a Scottish workers’ republic in the 1920s. This led to support for Scottish nationalism.

Most Trotskyist groups have adopted two-stage theories. The latter have a well established Stalinist pedigree and are derived from what Turley describes as pressures to “collaborate with ... the ‘national bourgeoisie’” imposed on the left by Soviet diplomacy during the cold war. In the case of Trotskyists, they follow from belief in the progressive nature of nationalised property relations (whether or not these are under workers’ control).

Written forms of criticism imply the existence of educated critics and an educated readership. Individuals are more likely to adapt to a Stalinised culture if they have no time to study and no contact with intellectuals. The adaptation of groups is more likely if Marxist education is not given organisational priority. For example, someone who has studied and understood Marx’s article on the Jewish question (and Trotsky’s writings on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism) is less likely to adopt a two-stage theory than someone told by his or her comrades that Marxist-Leninism dictates a two-stage theory for national liberation (and to criticise it is heterodox).


Stalinism has been responsible for an anti-intellectual culture on the left. This has prioritised activism over education. Those employed to police and enforce a group’s line (ie, the policy the group’s leadership has to persuade potential voters publicly) have disparaged critical intellectuals as ‘armchair theorists’. They are dismissed as interpreting the world and not changing it. If members are made busy with leafleting, writing and selling newspapers and organising meetings and demonstrations, then there is less likelihood of dissent and disunity.

Intellectuals are by nature critical. They are likely to question or challenge arguments or positions based on authority or prejudice and try to develop them themselves. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot ruthlessly purged intellectuals in order to try to control criticism of the unviable regimes and irrational politics they promoted. The Soviet gulags contained not only old Bolsheviks, anarchists, Mensheviks, socialist revolutionaries and Trotskyists, but also journalists, trade unionists, priests, academics and lawyers. Mao publicly humiliated intellectuals interested in studying Hegel and Marx, and sent them along with others into the countryside to do hard physical labour. The Khmer Rouge considered everyone who worked and lived in the cities as potential intellectuals and exterminated them indiscriminately.

Although popular front politics encouraged grooming intellectual ‘fellow travellers’ in the west to defend Soviet-type states, there was always the danger that the latter might use their literary skills and influence in the media in a critical manner. Given the dearth of intellectuals in the former USSR, Stalinists relied on loyal academics in the west to polemicise against the ‘petty bourgeois’ class character of dissenting intellectuals. If intellectuals moved to the left, they were denounced as ‘Trotskyists’ or ‘anarchists’ - labels that meant the same as ‘class enemy’.

Stalinist anti-intellectualism lives on in the behaviour of leaders of leftwing groups who quote great slabs of text from historical debates in order to silence critics of contemporary policies. It survives in the feelings that many rank-and-file members of groups have of being incapable of handling or understanding criticism. Many individuals seem to have difficulty distinguishing between criticism, public humiliation and personal attacks. Others seem so fearful of criticism, they cope by ignoring it. I guess this is because it feels or looks like a public humiliation or a personal attack. The expression of differences of opinion either takes the form of mindless polemic or is avoided altogether for fear of becoming the object of attack.

The lack of confidence in educated debate and discussion has been eroded by the Stalinist legacy of suppression of difference through violence or ostracism. There is a long history of members of groups resorting to physical or verbal abuse when faced with challenges to their knowledge or authority. A recent example was the rapid descent of members of the Campaign for a Marxist Party’s into name-calling and threats of violence. This arose when differences over whether or not to adopt a political programme or to engage within electoral politics became apparent.

A lingering Stalinist influence is the habit of speculating whether a political opponent is a police spy, agent provocateur or infiltrator. This leads to a culture of distrust, suspicion and the ever-present threat of exclusion and violence. A combination of the above practices has served to isolate individuals in groups making them incapable of either engaging with workers, developing Marxist theory or prioritising Marxist education. It serves to atomise and divide revolutionaries.

Guilt and blame

Within such a culture, it is unsurprising that James Turley should read a tone of denunciation into the text of my articles. He interprets my optimistic hypothesis that there is now sufficient awareness of the effects of Stalinism and commodity fetishism on the left to create a Marxist culture free from the taint of Stalinism as a moral diatribe. He thinks this is directed against individuals and groups (such as the CPGB) that have at some stage in their histories supported Stalinist regimes critically or uncritically. This is not my intention. I want to enlighten rather than offend. I want to open up the question of why a Marxist culture does not yet exist either within or outwith organised leftwing groups.

It is true that I make a sharp distinction between Marxism and Stalinism. I have taken from Hillel Ticktin the idea that Stalinism has been the most powerful form of anti-Marxism in existence. I therefore disagree with Turley that Stalinism is a distortion of Marxism. If it were the latter, it would be easily corrected rather than taken for Marxism itself. Like Turley I am as frustrated and annoyed by the ignorance, confusion, desperate politics and wasted energy Stalinism has caused. On the other hand, I am not one of those Trotskyists who think that people with a Stalinist heritage should be hauled before the tribunal of proletarian justice, found guilty and shot.

Althusser again

Up to this point, Turley and I have walked together. We go in different directions when he tries to prove that there is a positive side to Stalinism that has extended Marxism. If he means by this that Stalinism was neither capitalist nor socialist; that it was an unviable system that promoted nationalism and irrationalism throughout the world; then, there is the positive conclusion to be drawn that it had nothing to do with Marxism. Unfortunately he does not mean this. He argues that Stalinism has produced works of intellectual worth that have developed Marxism in a positive direction.

In my articles, I used the example of Louis Althusser as one of the most influential Stalinist intellectuals of the 20th century. Many scholars have used Althusser’s writings as a source of inspiration to advance their thinking and careers. This was unavoidable during the cold war, when, as a result of popular front policies, Stalinist academics formed powerful networks and temporary alliances with left-leaning anti-Stalinist intellectuals. Such networks enabled them to survive, organise and promote pro-Soviet or pro-Maoist policies. I agree that academics have made use of the work of Stalinist thinkers to develop ideas within the university disciplines of labour history, sociology and literary and media studies. These may be ideas of some intellectual worth. Their contributions to their disciplines may be interesting and thought-provoking.

I am sceptical, however, that they have made any contribution to Marxism. I question whether these writings have advanced the body of knowledge workers need to rule as a class and develop the conditions for a classless society worldwide. The latter requires the development and application of categories found within Marx’s political economy, such as abstract labour, productive and unproductive labour, use-value and value, finance capital, decline and planning. These are applicable to the understanding of contemporary crises, class formation and the nature of Stalinism itself. Althusser did not develop these categories nor apply them to contemporary reality. On the contrary, he interpreted them according to a non-Marxist doctrine - structuralism.

Turley’s argument

Turley defines Marxism as the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie by the collective organisation of the working class. He opposes this to an understanding of the Marxist method applied to political economy, history and philosophy. As a result he states that whether workers use a Stalinist textbook or apply a Marxist method to the understanding of capitalism is unimportant. He thinks that, although Capital is worth studying, the study of political economy, history and philosophy from a Marxist perspective takes a lower priority than political activity. Organising and developing policies are more important than study. They are important because political activity contributes to changing the world, whereas study only arms us intellectually in attempting to achieve that goal.

In support for the above position, he argues that revolutionary politics takes both a logical and a historical priority over the development and application of political economy to our understanding of capitalism and socialism. He criticises Capital for being about capitalism and not about socialism. He states that Capital does not prove that the working class is the basis for socialism.

This is a common misunderstanding of Capital. As I stated in my articles, Capital is an advance in socialist theory. In Capital Marx showed that socialism is incompatible with the market in all its forms. Socialism will not preserve small-scale commodity production, but destroy the latter along with large-scale monopoly and finance capital. Socialism will replace commodity production with planning of production, distribution and consumption on a global, not just a local or a national scale.

There can be no third way between the market and socialism. The latter will abolish the division of labour, release free time for creative and scientific activities and automate every form of unwanted labour. There are many insights into the future society within Capital. Marx argued that capitalism has created the objective conditions for its supersession: abstract labour presupposes versatile and flexible labour. This is one of the foundations for the abolition of the division of labour. Capital’s drive to lower the value of labour-power informs a tendency to prefer automated machinery. This is the foundation for generalised abundance and the dominance of free over necessary labour-time.

Logical and historical priorities

Contra Turley, I contend that his political definition of Marxism takes neither logical nor historical priority over Marx’s political economy.

The political expropriation of the bourgeoisie necessarily follows from Marx’s political economy, but it is insufficient. In the first phase of socialism after a proletarian seizure of power it is possible to imagine a political seizure of bourgeois property that does not eliminate the exclusive control over the surplus product by a social group. Those involved with value could be crushed by force. This would require a powerful state and regime that rules from above with the consequent transfer of control of the surplus to a bureaucratic or military elite. In contrast, the elimination of any possible ruling group requires measures that make sure that the economy is controlled by the ordinary worker. One of those measures is the priority given to educating workers in the nature of political economy and the potential they have for creating a socialist alternative to capitalism. Without this education workers will be incapable of participating in debates on the economy and the nature of the transition from market to planned social relations. Participation in these discussions is essential to workers’ democratic control over the productive process.

It is also false to state that revolutionary socialist politics takes historical priority over the teaching and learning of Marxism. Here Turley follows Althusser by breaking Marx into two. He presents two different related aspects of Marxism as two separate, unrelated stages in the development of Marx’s and Engels’ thought. The first is the revolutionary socialist Marx of the Manifesto and subsequent political writings. This revolutionary Marx takes precedence over the social scientific Marx of Capital. The fact he can do this depends on ignorance of the influence of political economy on socialist politics.

As I argued in my articles, every educated socialist in the 19th century had a basic knowledge of political economy. They agreed that labour was the source of wealth, that classes were formed based on the revenues they derived from the ownership of wealth, and that socialism presupposed that wealth be distributed to those who produced it. It is no accident that Marx and Engels began their critique of this political economy at the same time as developing their ideas on the revolutionary potential of the working class. In other words, they realised that the recognition that workers were exploited and that the bourgeoisie robbed them of the fruits of their labour was insufficient to the revolutionary task of supporting workers to bring an alternative, non-exploitative society into being. It follows that the development of Marx’s and Engels’ critique of political economy was at the heart of their revolutionary socialist politics. It informs the Manifesto as well as Capital.


Why are revolutionaries such as Turley today blind to the connection between Marxist political economy and socialist politics? I guess that one of the reasons is that, unlike 19th century Marxists, revolutionaries today are reluctant to write or even think about the socialist future. This reluctance is a direct product of Stalinist and social democratic influence. The 19th century revisionist thinker, Bernstein, was the first to argue that to write about the socialist future was utopian and therefore unMarxist. Kautsky, Bebel and other Second International Marxists had written extensively on the subject. Stalinism turned ‘utopian’ into a term of abuse.

Revolutionaries continue to denounce each other as utopians if they dare to speculate about the nature of the socialist future. Bernstein’s attack on attempts to theorise an alternative to capitalism was a vital element in turning the movement away from revolutionary strategy and tactics and towards reformism. Turley’s arguments for prioritising organisation and the formulation of policies over the study and development of Marxist political economy remind me of Bernstein’s position that the movement is everything and the goal is nothing. It may even explain why so many revolutionaries ‘burn out’, become demoralised and give up.

I have argued here that the teaching and learning of Marxism is essential to workers conceiving of a rational alternative to capitalism. I suggested that making Marxist education a priority is crucial to accepting that socialism is realisable in a non-utopian form. I am not, of course, arguing that organising, political journalism and formulating policies do not have a priority and should be dropped in favour of continuous classroom education. I am, however, suggesting that education be taken more account of and given greater attention in thought and action than it has been.

A beginning

Readers may be asking what does it mean in practice to give Marxist education a priority? It seems to me that there are two possible target areas for a campaign. The first targets the existing leftwing groups. The second targets teachers and students in and around higher education. The aim is to develop programmes of study, inquiry and research within and outwith institutions and organisations at formal and informal levels. These would be designed to support every student to become a teacher and every teacher to become a student. The questions I would raise initially are the following: ‘What has been your experience, if any, of Marxist teaching and learning?’ This stimulates critical reflection. The second question is: ‘How do you define Marxism?’ This encourages discussion and debate, which is in itself educational.