The “-ism” in Marxism
by Albert Weisbord
Nowhere than in the so-called revolutionary movement is the term “-ism” more extensively and frequently used. We are asked to adhere not only to anarchism, or syndicalism, or socialism, or communism, etc., but also to Marxism (Engelsism?), Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Luxemburgism, and to the ideas of every pip-squeak follower, such as Fosterism, Browderism, Cannonism, Swabekism, Ohlerism, etc., etc. to the point of nausea. Its about time we called a halt to this cultist practice.
Originally, the suffix “-ism” was used to designate the overall result or state of a process designated by a verb ending in another suffix—“ize”, as can be seen in such examples as plagiarize-plagiarism; antagonize-antagonism. In these cases, if it was the activity that was to be emphasized rather than the end result, the ending might be in “-ization”, or some similar suffix, such as in the case of crystallize-crystallization; civilize-civilization; etc. In all these cases the person doing the action would have the suffix “-ist” attached, as in the case of apologize-apologist; hypnotize-hypnotist; etc.
The practice of using the suffix “-ism” was extended to cover any school of thought, especially when maintained by organized adherents having an inflexible rigid creed, or tenets, or doctrines. One either followed the whole credo or one did not belong (as in Judaism, Arianism, Catholicism, etc.). Here the leaders of the religion could be apotheosized (as in Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Calvinism, etc.)
When broad political schools of thought arose with adhering political parties it was most natural that the term “-ism” should apply, and we get such terms as liberalism, conservatism, laborism, communism, etc. in each of these cases, however, the adherents were contributors to the general theory and could modify essential parts of it. Such a practice of nomenclature we can endorse, although it must be remembered that no “-ism”, as a system of thought, has any history or evolution.
It is an entirely different matter when the “-ism” is narrowed to the doctrines or ideas expressed by an individual. Let us take Marxism, for example. Do we take all of Marx’ ideas or only those we consider important? Do we include those in which he was proven wrong? Do we include his inconsistencies, his vacillations, his omissions, his lack of judgment in given cases? Can we take his ideas individually or must we build them into a “system"? And what if the progress of events makes his views passe’, or invalid, or unrealistic?
Obviously, we should not include his personal foibles or failings. Of these Marx had many. In his student youth he behaved like a drunken, dueling wastrel in imitation of his Junker friends. He was the father of an illegitimate child by his servant. He lied to his relatives to get money. He squandered foolishly a good part of his considerable inheritance, etc. Marxists may respond by saying they are not followers of the individual Marx but adherents to a body of principles called Marxism.
But what about some other errors not personal? What shall we say of his liquidation of the Communist League just before the revolutionary struggle began in Germany? What shall we say of his various half-baked cavalierly uttered opinions about Bohemia, or Poland, or elsewhere? Marx, himself, said he was not a Marxist. He, himself, had an uneven development so that at particular moments he might even be called an anti-Marxist! But it is hard for one calling himself a Marxist to declare any opinion or action of his hero false. Sometimes to “correct” Marx the Marxist will tend to show what Marx “really meant”, or to make profound what is really superficial.
To take an example of a superficial remark made “profound": in his Theses on Fuerbach, Marx says in effect that it is not enough to understand the world but the point is to change. Bravo! This shows Marx was a revolutionist from the beginning! Not at all. First of all, everyone could agree with him. liberal, conservative, anarchist, socialist. Here Marx does not advocate revolution, certainly not proletarian revolution, but mere change. In fact the statement, by itself, is a timid one, and Marx later enlarged on this. The point is not to advocate change but what change to advocate. Materialistically, our world does change every second, whether we want it or not, and may even be changing in the “right” direction, whether we understand the world or not.
We say all this despite the fact that Marx was the most profound and erudite economic, political, and social thinker of his day, to whom we owe a deep debt. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that, considering his thought in particular instances, Marxism may be incomplete, or entirely out of date. For example, his laws of motion of capitalism have to be restated and modernized in the period of the decline of capitalism which we experience today. Marx, however, did furnish us with a guide to thinking in his historical materialism, laid the basis for an economical science for the proletariat, and for the proletariat’s permanent seizure of power. These are enormously great achievements.
One can attach the suffix “-ism” not to indicate the body of ideas which you approve but principally to denounce the ideas you detest. Thus the term Stalinism. By this is often meant the betrayal of Lenin’s principles and policies, the nationalist theory of socialism in one country alone, the murder of millions of militants calling themselves communists, the hideous distortion of democratic centralism to equal oriental despotism at its worst, etc., etc. Here it is Stalin’s enemies who are using the term Stalinism as a curse, not his followers who would define Stalinism in quite different terms.
What we have said about Marx we can certainly say about Lenin and Trotsky, and of course much more so about their so-called present-day followers who are generally petty intellectuals, graduates of the frustrations of the 1960’s, or politicians unworthy, in most cases, of even being associated with, but who nevertheless demand unthinking obedience.
Lenin and Bolshevism we have left for separate treatment elsewhere, but let us turn to the term Trotskyism. Trotsky was a most brilliant ideologist and revolutionary. He emphasized that the revolution can not stop until it is made permanent by the total victory of the world proletariat (an idea first enunciated by Marx); that revolutionary Russia must be industrialized without breaking close ties to the peasantry (this was also the views of many others but best expressed by Trotsky); that Communists must struggle to end Stalin’s tyranny jeopardizing the life of the Soviet Union (no longer an issue); that Communists must not allow Hitler to take power (no longer an issue); that the Soviet Union, though a “deformed” workers State, must be supported (no longer a proper statement of the problem); that all Communists must strive to get into the official Communist Party and not form independent hostile organizations to overthrow it (but he also liquidated his own organizations and sent them into Socialist parties thus blurring the important distinction between socialists and communists in the political field.).
When we look at all these points can we say that Trotskyism, as such, remains a vital “-ism” peculiar to Trotsky and to no one else? It is time the term “Trotskyism” was dropped completely as, I believe, Trotsky himself would have advocated (or perhaps the termites will cannonize Canon and cannonade us with Cannonism or Arne Swabekism!)
The trouble with making an “-ism” out of the collected views of any person is that the adherents soon become an ingrown cult worshiping some sort of a God. They become prisoners of a set of ideas even though those ideas badly need reformulation and modernization and are no longer relevant. To put down a dissident, all an opponent has to say is: This is what Marx said, or Lenin said, or Trotsky said, or Stalin said, or Mao said. Thus adults can be turned into children, the present into the past, and movement into muttering.
For example, the first question a “Trotskyist” will ask is: Is Russia a deformed workers State as Trotsky said? You answer: How can it be a deformed workers State when it was never a workers state but was, at the start, a two-class, workers and peasants State soon operated by bureaucratic centrists still prisoners of the forces latent in the Russian Revolution. That’s not good enough. He now demands what about China, Cuba, Algeria, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Outer Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, are they not all deformed workers States? In your answer you must use the word “deformed". Like the Maoists who must use the exact term “running dogs of imperialism”, no other term will do.
What shall we do with such cultists to whom changes in time and circumstance mean nothing and who have lost their power to think? Were you to agree with them about Russia they would then hurriedly “prove” that such regimes can not foster counter-revolutionary parties and that, therefore, we must make it our duty to get back into the official Communist Parties run by the henchmen of Stalin and the others in order to “correct” and “reform” these parties. Here is the final Nirvana of the cult—the limbo of do-nothingness.
Instead of this sterility, why can not serious revolutionary groups unite with others on the large and important problems of the day, such as the organization and struggle of the blacks, the fight for the disemployed on relief and for the locked-out unemployed, the organization of the unorganized, the paralyzation of all nuclear armament and delivery systems, etc. There is a great deal to be done and little time to do it, but will the cultists obey common-sense? We are all for extensive theoretical analysis, but cultism atrophies theory; practice nourishes it.
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