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The Significance of Revisionism

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Revisionism is an ever-present danger to a revolutionary party. The following article first appeared in the theoretical journal Australian Communist (2010).  The whole journal can be downloaded as a pdf here ( ) .

Within the Marxist context, revisionism refers to that body of ideas that emasculates Marxism and strips out its revolutionary heart, and does this in the name of Marxism. Consequently, revisionism has profound significance in both the theory and practice of Marxism and a profound impact on the theory and practice of the Communist Party, the capacity of the working class to have clarity of vision, organisation and determination to assert its own class interests.

The history of revisionism in the socialist movement.

Revisionism is not new. The term was coined when Engels took on the ideas of Bernstein in 1898. Bernstein had been a disciple of Marx, but in a book published in the same year, titled Evolutionary Socialism, he put forward the classical mechanical evolutionism that was in vogue amongst capitalist intellectuals at that time, suggesting that capitalism must eventually transform itself into socialism. Mechanical evolutionism had been taken up by open reactionaries to justify the political doctrine of the survival of the fittest and used it to argue for the superiority of white civilization and justify colonialism. While Bernstein may not have shared these particularly reactionary views, he did use mechanical evolutionism to argue that western society had evolved to the point where it no longer required revolutionary change. Social development would be peaceful from now on. Capitalism will evolve into socialism.

Lenin observed in his letter Marxism and Revisionism (1908) that Bernstein “… argued that by that time German society had disproved some of Marx’s predictions: he asserted that capitalism was not on the verge of collapse, capital was not being amassed by fewer and fewer persons, the middle class was not disappearing, and the working class was not afflicted by ‘increasing misery’…” 

At the time, capitalism had experienced a boom period in previous decades. A tremendous rise in the organized capacity and determination of the working class had been seen. On the basis of the struggles of this period, some concessions had been won, and they did allow for some lifting of the position of the working class. It fostered the illusion that the hard face of capitalism was softening.

History proved that this situation was temporary and eventually capitalism progressed in the opposite direction to that prophesised in Evolutionary Socialism, leading to more exploitation, oppression and war. It resulted in increased class polarization and social upheavals that led to the First World War in 1914 and the October Revolution in 1917.

In the period just before World War One, revisionism rose once again. This time its theoretical leader was Kautsky. He outlined his position in a pamphlet called The Dictatorship of the Proletariat published in 1918. Note that he had put forward the revisionist position in various other writings since 1913, a year before the war. Kautsky obviously learned very little from the experience.

Lenin dealt with Kautsky extensively in his book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky and demolished a position that was essentially based on a revival of Bernstein, except that Kautsky argued that in the age of imperialism, this highest stage of capitalism had developed to the point where it was doing away with intra-imperialist competition and imposing the need for cooperation amongst the imperialist powers. Thus imperialism was no longer going to propel the world to war. This and the spread of universal suffrage, which gave the working class a say in the management of the capitalist system, would bring in an era of peaceful development. There is therefore no need for revolutionary change. The working class could win socialism by voting a majority into parliament. Because government now truly represented the will of the people, support for one’s national government is support for the people, the majority of which is the working class. This position led Kautsky and those who shared a similar position to openly side with the capitalist state against the working class. When world war broke out, they happily rallied behind their own imperialist class against the workers of other countries.

Capitalist democracy is lauded as true democracy and a socialist society where the organized working class imposes its leadership over society is branded as totalitarian dictatorship. Thus political power and democracy are stripped of their class content as revisionism eagerly grabs hold of the often repeated false refrain of the capitalist ideologues.

Another characteristic of revisionism has been to pit individualism against the collective. It does so under the spurious slogan of freedom of criticism. What this really means is, that the there should be no restrictions on the imposition of revisionism. There is a good dose of self-promotion and getting ahead.
Within the Communist Party, the individual should not be subjected to the discipline of the majority. There should be no struggle against opportunism. Ultimately, there should be no ideology within the Party, meaning of course, except revisionist ideology.

Advocates of this type of thinking do not hold back in using the whole arsenal of the capitalist way of thinking, such as intrigue, rumor mongering, petty factionalism and at times even violence. 

Great Depression and World War Two reasserted the practical truths of Marxism regarding capitalist crises and imperialist contention.  Faced with such a stark reality, many adherents of revisionism left Marx completely, to become open reformists, embracing capitalism wholeheartedly.

Khrushchev and modern revisionism

After World War Two and the death of Stalin, the Soviet leader Khrushchev followed in the revisionist footsteps. In this case, revisionism emerged in a socialist society. Nevertheless, it borrowed the position espoused by Bernstein, Kautsky and other revisionists, imposing on the global communist movement the theories of peaceful evolution of capitalism into socialism and of the development of imperialism in the direction where it allegedly no longer led to war. Imperialism could no longer afford to carry on recklessly it was said. The emergence of nuclear weapons made this even more so. Imperialism now had to compromise with socialism. The idea of maintaining peace at all costs was raised as the ultimate goal of humanity. There was no longer any class content to war. No distinction was made between unjust wars launched by imperialism and just wars fought for liberation. This outlook actually worked to hold back struggle. It assumed equality between capitalists and workers, between exploiter and exploited and took no account of the fact that the ruling class utilised state power to enforce its rule.

The vast majority of humanity is opposed to war and willingly works against it. But imperialism and reaction make the prospect of war a reality. This needs to be recognised and taken account of. While war is not wanted, it must be fought if it is imposed. Time and again this has been shown by real life.

When it comes to the relationships between countries of different social systems, it was argued that they should proceed on the basis of securing peace at all costs, including accommodation with imperialism. If imperialism is no longer the principle source of exploitation and war in the world, it stands to reason that there should be much in common and there are solid grounds for cooperation. Competition would no longer be on the basis of opposing ideologies and social systems, but competition for markets and spheres of influence. It was never stated precisely in these terms, but this was what the subsequent practice amounted to.

This same view in relation to war was also applied within the national scale. The intensification of class conflict is to be avoided, for it has the potential of leading to civil war. Instead of allowing this, the Communist Party must lead the working class as a force for peace above everything else. The same view applied to liberation struggles of the time against colonialism.

More to the point. It was said that class conflict between the working class and capitalist class could no longer be as intense as in the past. Revolutionary struggle was no longer necessary. Capitalism would evolve into socialism. All it required was a correct government policy. This needs no more than voting in a majority into parliament. Hence the Bernstein and Kautsky theory of the peaceful transition to socialism was resurrected once again. The state was repackaged as being above particular class interests.

The experience of building socialism was attacked through a personal attack on Stalin. Stalin stands out as a great defender of socialism and its principles. His was also a time when socialist development in the Soviet Union was at its peak. It was important to demolish the edifice. Without it, revisionism would have been extremely difficult to impose. Once it was imposed, it set the conditions to turn around the direction of development. Capitalism was eventually restored in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The peaceful transition to socialism, accommodation to capitalism at home and imperialism internationally, were imposed on Communist Parties in other countries, on the basis of the prestige and authority that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union still enjoyed. Consequently, many Communist Parties were divided, lost their revolutionary soul and in practice pulled back from the struggle to put an end to capitalism.

This new revisionism emanating from the Soviet Union joined forces with the new revisionism that was simultaneously raising its head in the capitalist world once again.

The social base of revisionism

Revisionism can only find purchase because it has a social base. It is a natural part of capitalism that is generated each and every day, emerging from the relationships between class forces.

This is what Lenin had to say on the matter in the same letter that was quoted above. “…The inevitability of revisionism is determined by its class roots in modern society…Because in every capitalist country, side by side with the proletariat, there are always broad strata of the petty bourgeoisie, small proprietors. Capitalism arose and is constantly arising out of small production. A number of new “middle strata” are inevitably brought into existence again and again by capitalism….These new small producers are just as inevitably being cast again into the ranks of the proletariat. It is quite natural that the petty-bourgeois world-outlook should again and again crop up in the ranks of the broad workers’ parties...”

The phenomenon of revisionism arising in socialist countries has the capacity to demoralize working class activists in the capitalist countries.  It needs some understanding.  On a recent chatline devoted to the legacy of the Soviet Union, one correspondent stated: “…surplus value a la Capital was not created in these countries as there was no property running under market conditions with free entry and exit from said market, production being, *totally* for human needs and not for profit. Ergo no surplus value was created to begin with let alone extracted. …surplus value didn't flow from Comecon nations to the Metropolis, USSR, there were other criterias for trade, and making Rubles wasn't one of them."

The comment is typical of some activists who believe that once a socialist economy is established the appropriation of surplus value from workers and its realisation as profit through the sale of commodities (ie exploitation under capitalist conditions) is ended.  To the extent that they understand the law of value, they say that it has been overcome under socialism or deny that it has any role to play under socialism.

When Stalin discussed the first draft of the Soviet text on political economy, he took its principal author, Leontiev, to task for just such a mistake.  Stalin said:

“Here it is written that the law of value has been overcome…As yet the law of value has not been overcome. It is not true that we are in control of prices. We want to be, but we have not yet achieved this.  In order to be in control of prices you need tremendous reserves, an abundance of goods, and only then can we dictate our prices…When we shall be able to distribute according to need, it will be a different matter, but as of yet the law of value has not been overcome.”

The significance of the law of value continuing into the socialist era is that surplus value continues to be created by the labour power of the working class.  However, it no longer has the character of exploitation because socialism has eliminated the appropriation of socially produced surplus value by the handful of private owners of the means of production that occurred under capitalism.  The appropriation of surplus value still occurs, but it is appropriated by its creators through their party and their government and distributed for the benefit of society according to a planning mechanism that cannot exist under capitalism.  This means that the profits from the labour power of the proletariat can be turned to socially useful purposes rather than being denied to society as they are under capitalism.

Speaking of planning under socialism, Stalin told Leontiev:

“It needs to be put simply: under capitalism it is impossible to conduct production according to plan on a societal scale because of competition and there is private property that disconnects things.  But in the USSR all enterprises are united by socialist property. Therefore we can and must conduct a planned economy. The planned economy is not our wish; it is unavoidable or else everything will collapse…Capitalist industry, agriculture and transport cannot be run by plan. In capitalism the cities must gobble up the countryside. For them, private property interferes. Say it simply: for us things are unified, for them things are disconnected.”

The requirement for planning recognizes the social appropriation of surplus value under socialism and the possibility of its social distribution according to the needs of the working class in its role as the ruling class of socialist society. Socialism allows unprofitable but socially necessary enterprises to be supported through just such a distribution.  So long as the proletariat is elevated to the position of ruling class, it can enforce such a socialist alternative. So long as the working class exercises leadership in everything, socialism can be maintained and developed. So long as there is proletarian dictatorship, exploitation in the old-fashioned sense can be eliminated by giving workers control over the rate and intensity of work at the point of production.

However, if persons in power take the capitalist road, then even under state ownership and in the absence of private property relations, the social appropriation of surplus value can be tampered with and a bourgeoisie can be generated within the Communist Party, and even in the Central Committee.
The private appropriation of part or all of the surplus value, realised as enterprise profit through sales, can be channelled to private bank accounts or distributed as state sanctioned bourgeois rights as encapsulated in differential salaries and elite privileges.

If allowed to continue, this "red" bourgeoisie can grow in power and influence to the point where it condones the emergence of private entrepreneurs and the transfer or sale of state-owned enterprises to its own members.  The transformation of the Communist Party into a revisionist party is promoted through rejection of the Marxist-Leninist thesis that the party represents the working class; now it represents “all productive forces” in society and membership is offered to entrepreneurs and millionaires.

It seems that surplus value, transferred to the whole of society when the working class is dictating terms, can be transferred to a new bourgeoisie when the working class is disempowered by revisionist policy. And when the surplus value of allied ("socialist camp") working classes is siphoned off through unequal trade terms by a more powerful nation no longer led by its working class, but used for the further enrichment of the elite of the more powerful nation, would that not be a case of "socialism in words but imperialism in deeds"?

In so far as there have been setbacks associated with the Communist Parties of some socialist countries succumbing to revisionism and taking the capitalist rather than the socialist road we can only accept that such phenomena are part of the learning process for the proletariat.  A learning process can only be positive in the long run, however regrettable the need for its lessons may be at any particular time or place. Thorough-going materialists need not be demoralised by the appearance of revisionism under conditions of socialism, but heartened that the revolutionary movement will be strengthened in its future endeavours through having learned the need for the adoption of ideological, political and organisational measures to ensure that real power, once seized, remains in the hands of the proletarian class.

In the capitalist countries, an important aspect of this non working class outlook within the ranks of the working class is the outlook of those within the most privileged section of the working class who had taken up the language of Marxism. This is a section of the working class in the capitalist countries who are provided with certain material comforts from the superexploitation of the colonies, and, after colonialism generally ended, of underdeveloped nations in the Third World, and even from the most exploited sections of their own class brothers and sisters in their own country.  The conditions of the existence of the better paid and more socially advantaged section of the workers in the advanced nations becomes an argument in their minds for living with capitalism, of not wanting to push demands on capitalism to an extreme which would see the end of the system that provides them with more than just a survival level of existence. It was the case of old revisionism that it turned into openly reformist social democracy and it is true for the new revisionism that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, much of which has also gone to openly embrace social democracy in one form or another. This privileged section of the working class seeks to protect its privileges and in doing so, is on the one hand caught in struggle against the most obvious abuses of capitalism, and on the other, having a stake in the continuation of the same order. Because of this, it is not able to remain steadfast and vacillates between the two poles.

Its most capable leaders are well represented in the trade union movement’s leadership. They are attracted to accommodation with the employers, the worship of legalism and parliamentary politics. Based on their sectional class interests, they find it hard to identify with the working class as a whole and are imbued with the spirit of factionalism.

Another specific source of revisionism is amongst the intellectuals. Again they are a relatively privileged section of society, with less stomach for the hardships of struggle that the working class experiences. They have book learning but relatively little practical experience. Intellectuals also tend to carry ideological baggage borne out of their class background and the illusions of academic and professional life. They need to take on the working class outlook and perseverance. But this is not always easy and sometimes it does not happen. It is much easier to take on a sanitised form of Marxism, one that is safe and does not bring on negative repercussions and instead complements already existing bourgeois prejudices. Those intellectuals who succumb to these traps are susceptible to revisionism. In turn, they add some intellectual credibility to revisionism.

That the main periods for the emergence of revisionism were in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871, the time that culminated in World War One, as well as the time of the Great Depression that led to World War Two is no accident. These were periods of an immense lifting of working class and revolutionary struggle. Each of them was also a testing time, imposing great difficulties and sacrifices. Lessons were being learned by the working class and the popularity of Marxism rose. Class consciousness and willingness to act surged.

The capitalist class feared for its future and took the course of suppressing revolutionary Marxism and promoting safe revisionism as a counter. Utilising the armoury of deception, concessions were offered to that portion of the privileged section of the working class espousing revisionism. For these concessions, revisionism objectively worked to disorganise, demoralise and tie the working class to the coattails of the capitalists. Providing access to the capitalist media in order to profile and flatter leading revisionists while demonising genuine revolutionary leaders such as Gallagher and Ken Miller, offering bribes in the form of material possessions and money, board positions and academic posts in return for conscious diversion of workers from the revolutionary path, guarantees of personal safety and protection from security surveillance and goons were all part of the process of suborning revisionists leaders. To consolidate the careers of such leaders, the promise of things being “made easier” for certain sections of the workers was made.  The Wages and Price Accord promised wage deals outside of the need for struggle, training and development opportunities were written unopposed into enterprise agreements, reclassifications of work provided alternative paths to improvements for some workers, the revisionist Laurie Carmichael toured the country extolling the virtues of  a “flexibility” that further divided workers into an advantaged core and a much larger marginalised periphery.…and all of this helped to foster the climate of class collaboration in which revisionists sought to work.

Periods of advance of revolutionary conditions tend to coincide with the bust phase of the economic cycle. The bust is followed by a period of expansion, where the revisionist base that had germinated in the previous period is fortified and expanded. During a period of boom a larger section of the social surplus value can be turned towards providing more concessions and creating the illusion of everlasting progress and prosperity. It feeds illusions within the working class and the spread of revisionism.

The greatest impact is on the political and trade union representatives of the working class, who happen to find themselves in positions of standing, mixing with the big end of town, living a life of material comfort and offered plum positions in government, the bureaucracy and sometimes even in business. This creates isolation from the working class, strengthens identification with capitalism and disdain for any thought of putting an end to it. For those who shift to this outlook, the process may not be a conscious one and they may even believe that they are in the struggle for socialism. It doesn’t make any difference. They have still been corrupted into playing the role of revisionists, and they do so against the interests of the working class and society in general. 

Revisionism and trade union ideology

Closely associated with revisionism is the influence of trade union ideology. Trade unions by their nature are organisations to defend the interests of the working class against the employer. They are not organisations aiming to put an end to capitalism. If they were, they could not function as trade unions. Wages and conditions are improved on the basis of recognition of the capitalist’s right to be a capitalist. Otherwise there would be no negotiation and no agreement. The problem is that the practice of trade unionism gives rise to the ideology of trade unionism, the acceptance of the permanency of capitalism and the substitution of trade union struggle for revolutionary struggle. Those who are on a day-to-day basis immersed in trade union activity are influenced by this. The close association of communists with trade union organisation and struggle tends to bring this influence into the Communist Party. Those who succumb to it are vulnerable to accepting the viewpoint of revisionism. Great effort is required to counter this influence.

Revisionism and the influence of US imperialism

For Australia there were two important factors that needed to be considered. One is that US imperialism paid attention to, and, economically, politically and culturally invaded Australia in a big way during the post-war period. This was the Australia’s greatest period of industrialisation and it occurred largely on the basis of American capital. US imperialist influences extended in all spheres and it even affected the Communist Party of Australia. This was natural. The problem was that there was not sufficient understanding of this influence and therefore a lack of effective counter measures.

For a long time, the focus had been on breaking away from Britain. During the war against Japanese imperialism there had been a measure of unity with US imperialism against the common enemy. Britain proved to be incapable of defending all parts of its far-flung empire and not particularly interested in the defence of Australia. The standing of the US rose. These conditions provided a conduit for revisionism from the US in the 1950’s, in the form of the ideas of Earl Browder. He was then the leader of the Communist Party of the United States of America. Browder preached the classical positions of revisionism, adding that there should be no Communist Party.  He was particularly mistaken in believing that the wartime collaboration between the Soviet Union and the “democracies” could be extended into the internal processes for change under capitalism.  A substantial number of Australian communists were influenced to turn away from the Communist Party and to seek the answer in the reformist Labor Party. Many of those who remained in the Communist Party were also influenced in some ways. The Communist Party officially accepted what Browder was putting forward for a period of time. Only when Browder was refuted by the International Communist Movement did the Party in Australia officially turn away from his ideas. Even so, the turning away was to a significant extent more in words than deed. Even this would not have occurred in the absence of the fierce struggle wage by those who did take a stand against revisionism.

The kernel of Browder’s ideas continued to have an influence.

The post war period was also a time of stepped up suppression of communists and communist organisation.  The Communist Party of Australia had been declared illegal and suppressed after June 1940, had had its legality restored after March 1943 and had again to struggle against its dissolution in a referendum put by the Menzies government during 1950-51 . This and pervading anti-communism over a period of time demoralised some who found the going somewhat easier by abandoning ship and gaining respectability in the world of reformism. Many of these people had joined the Communist Party on the basis of the leadership that had been provided in practice during the anti-fascist struggle. They saw in the Communist Party a vocal and effective champion of rights and liberties and failed to develop ideologically into a Bolshevik consciousness. They had not joined on the basis of a firm understanding of the ideological foundation of the Party. Many were bound to eventually succumb to changes in the wind.

The rise of Khrushchev revisionism found fertile ground.

Revisionism reached its highest point in Australia and other countries during the 1960’s. Its effect was to contribute largely to the separation of communists from the working class. Communist leadership of the trade union movement and the political struggle in general was weakened. The working class was left without leadership, lacked direction and exposed to all sorts of alien ideas that further weakened its position. It was only because of the ongoing effort of those who fought against revisionism that something of the situation was salvaged and the core of the revolutionary movement in Australia was retained.

A struggle for the reconstitution of the Communist Party as a Marxist-Leninist  organisation led to the formation of the CPA (M-L) in 1964. Over a period of time after the early 60s, the residual revisionist Communist Party split into a camp embracing “Eurocommunism” and a group who retained an overriding loyalty to their vision of the Soviet Union as the birthplace of socialism and victor in the war against fascism.  The former group did what Menzies had been incapable of, leading the Communist Party into voluntary dissolution. Of this it can be said that there is no better proof of the service of revisionism to capitalism.
The latter group went through various metamorphoses before eventually taking back for themselves the name of the Communist Party of Australia.  They include that older generation of Soviet loyalists and a newer generation recruited after the formal collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites around 1990.  Most within these two categories of membership concede that Khrushchev was a revisionist, but the influence of the older group ensures that this does not extend to the recognition of the emergence of Soviet social-imperialism which occurred following the Khrushchev revisionist group’s coup in 1956.

After the death of Stalin and the revisionist coup led by Khrushchev, the Soviet Union changed its colour and cooperated with US imperialism to suppress national liberation movements that threatened to draw the Soviet Union into war with the US, whilst at the same time, competing with US imperialism for the control of spheres of influence, sources of raw materials and markets.  It abandoned proletarian internationalism and began to act like an imperialist superpower, subjecting other countries to bullying, interference, control and invasion.

However, the Soviet people cherished the collective spirit of socialism and remained supportive of Stalin and the achievements of his government, making it impossible for the Khrushchevite or subsequent regimes to officially renounce adherence to Marxism. This remained the situation until the advent of Gorbachev, who completed the restoration of capitalism, including dismantling what had been left of sections of the economy owned by the State.

During the entire period from Khrushchev’s coup through to the formal destruction of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev and Co, it was absolutely appropriate to refer to the Soviet Union as a “social-imperialist” nation, a nation still proclaiming itself socialist in words, but being imperialist in its behaviour.
Unfortunately, the older group in the CPA adhere to the belief that Brezhnev and Andropov in particular were loyal to Marxism and that socialism continued to be practised in the Soviet Union until Gorbachev formally concluded the socialist era.

Whether or not we can cooperate with and work with the current membership and leadership of the CPA is a question of some importance to the Australian communist movement and to the working class.  It is appropriate that at the present time we should seek to unite around practical tasks that we share, whilst acknowledging our differences on certain questions of ideology, politics and organisation.  

Combating revisionism

Revisionism is a scourge that can be successfully held at bay. Real life tends to expose it over time. However, because it is a natural product of capitalism, it keeps on raising its head. Struggle against it must therefore be relentless. Revisionism as a system of ideology, politics and organisation must be fought. Revolutionary Marxist ideology, politics and organisation must be won.

But this is not all. Revisionism also affects individuals. Each communist has to exist in a sea that pulls towards the revisionist way of looking at things. The only way to counter this is through a continuous effort to remould oneself. It also means accepting the existence of organisational structures within the Party that make constructive criticism an essential part of the relationship between comrades, and in particular, that allows scrutiny and criticism of higher levels of the Party by lower levels. It requires lifelong investigation of objective reality, improving the grasp of theory and constant immersion in struggle, where the knowledge on contemporary reality and theory are applied and developed in the light of experience. It also means combating tendencies within oneself to craving material comfort or being patted on the back by others, seeking the easy life, over emphasis on advancement in one’s career and the practice of arrogance towards other people. If manifestations of these negative qualities are seen in one’s comrades, then they must be subject to the type of constructive criticism mentioned above.  To do otherwise is to commit the error of liberalism as described by Mao Zedong in his Combat Liberalism.  And an environment of bourgeois liberalism corrodes the revolutionary soul of the Party and disarms Party members ideologically in the face of emerging revisionist trends. These are the tendencies that land one on a slippery slide. Only through a lifelong commitment to the working class and revolutionary struggle, and criticism and self-criticism aimed at ideological improvement, can these tendencies be countered.


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