Note- I wrote this a long time ago and just found it in my drafts so I thought I would publish it.
Words mean so much. A word usually must mean much, because that is what words are for- to make a compact abstract representation of a large experience.
A word, or a phrase, may come to mean something, or be used to mean something, other than what it meant originally. This is problematic of course. “Marxism” now means something like a belief in the desirability of socialism. What Marxism literally means of course is the ideas of Karl Marx as outlined in his various writings, “Das Kapital” primarily.
Marx may be called an economist, or a philosopher, but I think he was really a historian. He had a theory, which may be considered an economic theory or a philosophical theory, but was really a historical theory. I think this is because historians don’t have the intellectual prestige economists or philosophers have. In any case Marx stated that human history followed a certain pattern of development, and would follow this pattern of development predictably into the future. He was an advocate for the development he forsaw but it was still a matter of objective truth, not simply something he desired.
He wasn’t alone in this belief. Josef Schumpeter also believed socialism was inevitable, because of the trauma of creative destruction. The capitalist triumphalism you would find in Forbes magazine or the Wall Street Journal would dismiss this, but Schumpeter was more right than they are, and Marx was not very wrong. The social democracy found in the most developed countries today is nothing like the communism Marx envisioned, but it’s nothing like 19th century capitalism either.
Marx saw the future more clearly than most in the 19th century, but even so Marxism as an intellectual concept isn’t popular these days. Academics have other things to toy with.
“Marxism-Leninism” is a term not much used, but what it refers to is much simpler. Lenin wanted to develop a plan for implementing the socialism Marx forsaw. He didn’t think the workers were going to spontaneously rise up, so he organized a “vanguard” party, that would attack the existing political structure, rally the workers, establish a disciplined socialist government, and develop a communist society.
A Marxist revolution might be considered democratic, as it would involve a large proportion of the population, but Lenin didn’t care about that. A small number of people would establish the program, and everybody else would go along with the program.
What actually happened 80 years ago isn’t really important today. What’s important is what people currently believe about those events. Marx was right in broad generalities- people would change, society would change, and people would want to throw off the bonds of the past in favor of something new. Specifically, he was quite wrong. What you get, when the inhabitants of an advanced industrial country decide to completely overthrow the past and start anew, is not anything Marx envisioned, but France.
Some people love France, some people hate it. I’ve never been there, so I can’t say. Liberals and socialists of all stripes love France though. Not socialist, but a heavily social social democracy, it is the apex of a certain kind of social development.
But France is only vaguely Marxist, and not at all Marxist-Leninist. For that you need an undeveloped, agricultural, virtually feudal place, like Russia, or China, where there is a small group of people who pull the strings who can all easily be wiped out. My feeling about Marxist-Leninist projects is that they either succeed quickly or not at all. And usually if they fail, they fail fairly quickly. Spain and Latin America are examples of quick failure; the exception being Colombia, where a formal M-L insurgency still exists. But the FARC is really more a bandit group and drug outfit than a real army.
In any case Marxism-Leninism is an idea that had a brief heyday and is not active now. Its blood-curdling rhetoric is found among progressive types everywhere but the active parts of it are pretty much gone, athough I don’t know how exactly they monitor and control dissent in Bolivia and Venezuela.
Stalinism is again something very different. Usually when people say “Stalinism” they are actually refering to Marxism-Leninism. Since the term is much used, although nothing like in the old days when the Soviet Union was active, I will offer a definition of it, which I believe will clarify things.
Stalinism is not a political or governmental system of any sort. It is a rhetorical style. A rhetorical style that when matched with a totalitarian system creates havoc but nonetheless merely a rhetorical system.
First you have a party line, the official position of the party, what’s correct and what’s right. All parties have party lines, even if many of the members don’t really follow them. Stalinism is different in the way deviation is handled. Under Stalinism deviation from the party line, however slight, however expressed, is evidence that the deviator is not merely a bad party member, or uneducated, or of a different but psooibly reasonable position, but an actual enemy of the party. the evils that can then be attributed to this person are then limited only by the imagination.
Marxism is today little studied, Marxism-Leninism is mostly defunct, but Stalinism is where ever socialism is.