What is Revisionism and Why Does it Matter?

“Practice Marxism, and not revisionism…” – Mao, Report to the Tenth Congress of the CCP

Often in Marxist circles one will here talk of revisionism, yet I have found that for all the prattling on about revisionism there’s little effort put into actually explaining what that term means and why it has a negative connotation. Of course when we are discussing revisionism in the context of Marxism we certainly mean something different than the colloquial usage of the term implies, or what we historians mean when we speak of “revisionist schools of history”, which are not always bad. After all, Eric Foner is today’s foremost revisionist historian of Reconstruction who built off W.E.B. Dubois’ work critiquing the white supremacist historiography of the Dunning School. Revisionism, in its positive historical sense, is simply a re-examination and critique of prevailing orthodoxy. This critique and re-examination can even supplant previous orthodox views as the new orthodoxy, as is the case with Foner and Dubois’ work superseding the Dunning School, or the works of J. Arch Getty, R.W. Davies, and Stephen Wheatcroft overtaking the conservative Cold War narrative dominant in Western Soviet historiography. Historical revisionism has nothing to do with fabrications, lies, or distortions simply because History is a contested field that does not, and cannot, reveal absolute truths, only partial fragments that can then be reassembled and attached to other fragments to produce a coherent narrative.

Having said that, revisionism in the Marxist usage, does share a commonality with revisionism as historians use the term. Namely, revisionism is the re-examination and critique of Marxism, supposedly from a position within Marxism itself, but actually from a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois position. Why would critiquing something be wrong, and why do Marxists, unlike historians, speak of revisionism negatively? Are Marxists simply dogmatists who hate anything that strays from pre-ordained orthodoxy? Are we opposed to self-criticism and the introduction of new theories? Marxists certainly are not opposed to straying from prevailing orthodoxy, in fact the leaps of theory and practice made in the past (e.g. Marx breaking with the utopian socialists, Lenin breaking with the Second International, and Mao breaking with the Soviet revisionists and Stalinism) all testify to the fact that Marxism requires criticism and ruptures within itself to advance. This is a point noted by G. Madjarian,

The fight against ‘revisionism’ cannot be waged by conserving, or rather, by merely re-appropriating, Marxism as it existed historically in the previous period. Far from being the signal for a return to the supposed orthodoxy of the preceding epoch, the appearance of a ‘revisionism’ is a symptom of the need for Marxism to criticize itself.

Furthermore, as Mao noted,

Both dogmatism and revisionism run counter to Marxism. Marxism must necessarily advance; it must develop along with practice and cannot stand still. It would become lifeless if it were stagnant and stereotyped. However, the basic principles of Marxism must never be violated, otherwise mistakes will be made. It is dogmatism to approach Marxism from a metaphysical point of view and to regard it as something rigid. It is revisionism to negate the basic principles of Marxism and to negate its universal truth. Revisionism is one form of bourgeois ideology. – Mao, Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work

Marxism exposes the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production, critiques it, and provides a methodology for studying the development of human society, that is, historical materialism. Because of this, Marxism is often referred to as “scientific”, a term that comes with problematic associations in our century, since the term science today refers to something very specific and different than how it was used in the 19th century (I go into more detail on what Marxists mean by science and historical materialism as science here). Like all things that are “scientific”, whether it be in the natural sciences or the social sciences, theories and conclusions can be modified, bolstered, or discarded and replaced in light of new knowledge. In instances when a general theory reveals certain truths, but some of the supporting evidence or sub-theories may be wrong, those can be discarded while not harming the legitimacy, or truth, of the overarching theory provided that the overarching theory still rests on sound evidence and methodology. An example from the natural sciences should suffice to explain what this means. In the history of evolutionary biology previously it was thought by many in the late 19th century that the adaptation and speciation of the various flora and fauna occurred steadily, in a linear-like progression, towards higher and more complex forms of life. This is known as phyletic gradualism. Most people are familiar with this conception in the form of the elementary illustrations of human evolution in high school biology textbooks that depict simple primates standing more and more upright in a steady upward trend towards modern humans. Another popular view of evolution until the 1970s was that of allopatric speciation, which, put simply, describes speciation as occurring primarily when the same species separates into two geographically separated populations, which over prolonged periods of isolation from one another lead to genetic drift and vicariance. We now know, thanks to Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, that both views, while containing truths about evolution, were incomplete in their understanding. Punctuated equilibrium states, drawing on the fossil record, that there are significant periods of time when quantitative changes occur in species, which then lead to an evolutionary surge of qualitative change, the Cambrian Explosion being the most famous example of this. This doesn’t mean that phyletic gradualism is on the whole false, as gradual changes do occur during long periods of seemingly inactive evolutionary change, and allopatric speciation occurs as well, but both must be understood in relation to punctuated equilibrium to fully grasp evolution in its all-sidedness. Consequently, this new theory of punctuated equilibrium did not undermine the over-arching theory of evolution itself, in fact it strengthened it, even though it critiqued older theories that were incomplete in their understanding due to not taking into account the phenomena that punctuated equilibrium describes.

So how does this example relate to understanding revisionism and its connection to Marxism? Revisionism in its Marxist usage is the replacement or removal of the underlying positions of Marxism regarding its assessment of capitalist society and the transition to communism with theories and practice that legitimate capitalism and bourgeois ideology. Unlike revisionist schools of history, or the revisions to evolutionary theory, revisionism in the Marxist sense discards the fundamental observations, theories, and conclusions of Marxism. More generally, revisionism is the

…alteration of a theory, essentially usurping (though taking elements of) the former theory and replacing it with a new one. While the attributes of a theory are subject to change in accordance to changing historic circumstances, changing the fundamental basis of that theory is to nullify it in place of a new one. – Encyclopedia of Marxism

A revisionist methodology and outlook regarding capitalism and class struggle is analogous to trying to study biology while rejecting evolution, or to developing medicine without the germ theory. Your analysis will inevitably be one-sided and incomplete in understanding.

And lest those who don’t understand the significance of this accuse all “anti-revisionist” Marxists of merely mimicking a form of quasi-religious dogmatism where those who don’t “believe hard enough” in Marxism are branded as revisionists, a further clarification and refutation of such a misinformed view is necessary. Just as those who reject evolution destroy the undergirding of modern biology, so to does revisionism destroy the basis for the descriptive and prescriptive revelations and arguments of Marxism regarding capitalism and human society. This seriously hampers and distorts a proper understanding and assessment of capitalism and the revolutionary project to move beyond it. It’s not a matter of “believing”, as Marxism is not a belief system, but a framework for understanding our world verified through practice. In fact Marxism must avoid dogmatism and revisionism, as noted earlier, in order to maintain its veracity. Those who write off the label of revisionism and its implications, are either ignorant, or confused, about the political and methodological consequences of the revisionist framework on the possibilities of making revolution and advancing towards communism.

So what exactly are the political implications of revisionism? While there are many, here we will focus on its political implications during the period of socialism rather than on how revisionism affects the process of revolution and organizing to overthrow capitalism. Although that is important, understanding revisionism in the socialist period will do much towards grasping the significance of revisionism during a pre-revolutionary period. During the polemics of the 20th century much was made of the dangers of revisionism by the “anti-revisionist” camp of communists, primarily those grouped around support for the Chinese communists and their assessment of the state of the international communist movement and the nature of the Soviet Union. This argument, in defense of the basic principles of Marxism, laid out by the Chinese communists in critique of the Soviets is of foundational importance to understanding the dynamics of the period of socialist transition. What is not grasped today, even by many who claim the mantle of “anti-revisionism” (which is a politically passé term since Maoism has now superseded the need for using such a term as a prefix and signifier as it takes anti-revisionism as its base) is the nature of revisionism itself.

There is a tendency among contemporary Marxist-Leninists, and even some so-called Marxist-Leninist-Maoists, to view revisionism as nothing more than “bad socialism”. Of course such a view boils down to an un-Marxist analysis of the period of socialism being one in which certain minor policy “mistakes” can be made that produce this “bad socialism”, but these can never fundamentally alter the mode of production or what class holds state power in a qualitative way. This ignores the reality of class struggle continuing during the socialist transition period, and is in fact dangerous in that it lulls one into conceiving of socialism as a static period in which steady progression towards communism occurs, which may only be interrupted by temporary policy blunders or outside antagonistic forces. The Marxist position, in contradistinction to the revisionist one, is that revisionism is not merely “bad socialism”, but signals the rise to power of a new bourgeoisie within the state apparatus. But how can there be a bourgeoisie during socialism if socialism raises the proletariat to the position of the ruling class and expropriates the bourgeoisie of the means of production, thus capturing the state apparatus and converting privately owned means of production to social property? It is because the former ruling class is not eliminated as a class overnight, as the material basis that gives rise to the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie cannot be done away with instantaneously, it is merely deprived of its former economic and state power. This class still struggles to return to power, as Lenin noted, through its international connections to Capital, the maintenance of capitalist social relations within the sphere of production, and through the lingering bourgeois ideology present in the ideological state apparatus. The material base that spontaneously regenerates and sustains this new and old bourgeoisie is petty commodity production itself, historically in the form of small-scale peasant agriculture and in cooperatively owned production. Moreover, the act of transforming the means of production into social property and raising the proletariat to the position of the ruling class is relatively easy in comparison to the much more arduous task of advancing towards communism that confronts the victorious proletariat. As Lenin said,

In order to abolish classes it is necessary, first, to overthrow the landowners and capitalists. This part of our task has been accomplished, but it is only a part, and moreover, not the most difficult part. In order to abolish classes it is necessary, secondly, to abolish the difference between factory worker and peasant, to make workers of all of them. This cannot be done all at once. This task is incomparably more difficult and will of necessity take a long time. It is not a problem that can be solved by overthrowing a class. It can be solved only by the organisational reconstruction of the whole social economy, by a transition from individual, disunited, petty commodity production to large-scale social production. This transition must of necessity be extremely protracted. – Lenin, Economics and Politics in the Period of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Here it is important to condense the primary contradictions that occur in socialist society that must be overcome, that is, the contradiction between town and country, the division between mental and manual labor, the contradiction between forms of property (collective vs. public), and most importantly the separation between the producers and the means of production, as well as the expansion of the institutions of self-government which leads to the “withering away” of the state.

The revisionist view does not see these contradictions, and even more importantly denies the most fundamental conclusion that emerges from the recognition that these contradictions exist and that socialism covers a protracted period of time, namely, that socialism can be thrown back to capitalism. This view arises because of the tendency of revisionism to utilize a mechanical interpretation of historical materialism in which all that is necessary to move towards communism is an increase in the productive forces (i.e. increase in the skill of labor power and technological advancement of the means of production). This dogmatic privileging of the productive forces ignores the primacy of the relations of production (i.e. the social relations that people must enter into in the production process), which Marx was careful to emphasis the importance of transforming in the process of revolution towards communism. Marx studied the internal relations of capitalism and was concerned more so with the relations between people, expressed in bourgeois society as relations between things (commodities), than he was with the development of things. To forget this is to forget Marx’s revelation regarding commodity fetishism. This “productive forces theory” also denies human agency in History because it views humans as reflections of things, rather than things as a reflection of human labor and ideas, thus implicitly negating any potential for revolutionary acts since revolution solely depends on things not people. This is why Marx was insistent on stating that the historical materialist analysis must give primacy to human agency, although in the last instance economic conditions are primary, and why Engels chastised those who reduced everything to being determined solely by the economic base. After all, as Marx said, “The working class itself is the greatest of all productive forces.” Furthermore, to those revisionists I would ask, did Marx write “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, or did he write “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the development of the productive forces”? Revisionists will certainly have trouble reconciling this glaring contradiction in what’s left of their “Marxism”.

This “productive forces theory” also denies the dialectical interplay between the base and superstructure. It denies the fact that superstructural transformation can lead to a transformation of the base. Failure to understand all of this is why many Marxist-Leninists still regard countries like the DPRK and Cuba (or even worse, China!) as socialist. As Mao said,

We can now affirm that classes do exist in socialist countries and that class struggle undoubtedly exists. Lenin said: After the victory of the revolution, because of the existence of the bourgeoisie internationally, because of the existence of bourgeois remnants internally, because the petit bourgeoisie exists and continually generates a bourgeoisie, therefore the classes which have been overthrown within the country will continue to exist for a long time to come and may even attempt restoration. The bourgeois revolutions in Europe in such countries as England and France had many ups and downs. After the overthrow of feudalism there were several restorations and reversals of fortune. This kind of reversal is also possible in socialist countries. An example of this is Yugoslavia which has changed its nature and become revisionist, changing from a workers’ and peasants’ country to a country ruled by reactionary nationalist elements. In our country we must come to grasp, understand and study this problem really thoroughly. We must acknowledge that classes will continue to exist for a long time. We must also acknowledge the existence of a struggle of class against class, and admit the possibility of the restoration of reactionary classes. – Mao, Speech at the Tenth Plenum of the Eight Central Committee

Within this observation is a key insight, one that revisionism lacks the explanatory power to elucidate, namely, the concept of capitalist restoration. The primary failure of revisionism is the failure to account for capitalist restoration and to explain it. Many communists reject the possibility of the proletariat losing state power except by means of a violent counter-revolution. They reason that since places like China, Cuba, and the DPRK did not see violent counter-revolution and still have elements of economic planning and state property then they are still at least nominally socialist. Of course this fundamentally overlooks the fact that an open and violent counter-revolutionary seizure of power by the bourgeoisie is not necessary for the bourgeoisie to come to power in a socialist state. As both Mao and Lenin observed, the class struggle dons new forms during the socialist period and can oscillate in intensity. It’s a period in which the proletariat struggles to remain in power and extend its hegemony into all spheres. With the transformation of the means of production into public property the class struggle intensifies, particularly around controlling the state apparatus. This is why Lenin’s last struggle against the emerging bureaucracy in the Soviet Union assumes importance, because he recognized that the bourgeoisie was within the state and Party itself, as Mao would later give fuller expression to, and that it could grow powerful enough to seize state power from the proletariat. Furthermore, this is why the question of real self-governance and a democratization of the state, combined with participation by all members of society in the affairs of managing the state, assumes a monumental importance during the socialist period. If the bourgeoisie captures the state then the proletariat has lost power, and regardless of property forms or the presence of planning, we would be dealing with a bourgeois state not a proletarian one. This is because

…politics is a concentrated expression of economics […] Politics must take precedence over economics. To argue otherwise is to forget the ABC of Marxism. – Lenin, Once Again on the Trade Union Question

In other words, the political line determines the economic line. This is precisely why, even if relatively peaceful, a capture of state power by revisionists, or a “new bourgeoisie”, constitutes a superstructural transformation of the repressive state apparatus and signals a return back to capitalism, unless of course the proletariat can recapture power. Two examples will suffice to prove the correctness of this conception. During the period of the New Economic Policy Lenin said that it was proper to call the state “socialist”, not in the sense of there being a socialist economy, as this was during the period where significant concessions were made to market forces to jump start production, but in the sense that the proletariat was the ruling class. In real terms this meant that the proletariat was the ruling class of a socialist state presiding over a state capitalist economy! Secondly, was feudalism fully abolished when the bourgeoisie supplanted the feudal aristocracy and monarchy (which in many places occurred relatively peacefully), or did the bourgeoisie itself preside over a period in which feudalism was transformed into capitalism through a protracted period of struggle? The answer is that the bourgeoisie did come to power before feudalism was completely abolished in many places in Europe, and despite still having feudal, or “semi-feudal” economies it would be correct to label these bourgeois, or capitalist, states. Primarily because the bourgeoisie had captured state power and therefore set in motion a transformation of feudal relations, and an acceleration of the nascent elements of capitalism towards complete consolidation. However, this was not without setbacks for the rising bourgeois class, as in many places the feudal aristocracy overthrew the bourgeoisie or used their remaining power to violently struggle against the destruction of the feudal order. In this sense, the capture of state power by the bourgeoisie meant not only an expansion and development of the productive forces and a transformation of feudal social relations, but it also called forth new productive forces suited to bourgeois production. The same is necessary in socialist society.

The creation of ‘the material basis of socialism’ is subordinated there [Maoist China -N&F] to the destruction of the social relations inherited from capitalism which are replaced by socialist relations. In turn, the socialist relations call forth new productive forces which are proper to socialism. – Mavrakis, On Trotskyism: Problems of Theory and History

While the economic factors are important in their own right when it comes to socialism, i.e. the presence of economic planning and social property, the political and transformative aspects of socialism have gained in importance in light of the experience of the “actually existing socialisms” of the twentieth century. The political aspect of socialism refers to the question of what class holds and exercises state power over the ideological and repressive state apparatuses. The transformative aspect refers to the continuation of class struggle towards communism, i.e. are real inroads being made to lessen the contradictions between mental and manual labor, between town and country, and restricting bourgeois right. This is the “socialist road”, or the road towards communism. If the above are being widened then that is a regression back towards capitalism, the “capitalist road”, and away from communism. In real terms this means that a Marxist analysis of contemporary states like Cuba, China, and the DPRK does much to reveal that countries like China have undergone full-scale capitalist restoration, and in the case of Cuba and the DPRK, were never on the socialist road and have been under dictatorships of their respective national bourgeoisie, supported by the petty-bourgeoisie.

So, what does this all mean? Clearly revisionism means the denial of the revolutionary necessity of communism, since it actively undermines the revolutionary project of actualizing it through its implicit denial of revolutionary agency. Secondly, revisionism blunts the edge of the Marxist understanding and critique of capitalism by removing or significantly altering observations and conclusions about bourgeois society from a revolutionary standpoint, which of course impedes any possibility of making revolution since one cannot overthrow something that one doesn’t understand. In doing all of this revisionism acts as a break to forwarding a truly revolutionary critique of capitalism and formulating the correct revolutionary line to overthrow it, hence the importance of recognizing it, critiquing it, and struggling against it. Furthermore, in our contemporary setting, clarity on the nature of revisionism is of fundamental importance to grasping the capitalist and imperialist world system. Without a real Marxist understanding of this world system, one easily fails into supporting this or that minor or competing imperialist power in the name of “anti-imperialism”, which has real world consequences for the international revolutionary working-class movement. Revisionism has been the theoretical buttress used by the apologists of Chinese imperialism to justify their continued support for that “socialist state”, for example. Revisionism has been the theoretical whip used by apologists of the DPRK as they export their slave labor in the service of international capital. Revisionism has been the rallying cry of the champions of Cuba as they continue to open their country to imperialist exploitation and have created a racialized caste system among the Cuban working-class in the service industry. Clearly, revisionism is more than simply a mistaken view and “bad socialism”, it is directly harmful to proletarian internationalism and revolution.



3 thoughts on “What is Revisionism and Why Does it Matter?

  1. “Revisionism has been the theoretical whip used by apologists of the DPRK as they export their slave labor in the service of international capital. Revisionism has been the rallying cry of the champions of Cuba as they continue to open their country to imperialist exploitation and have created a racialized caste system among the Cuban working-class in the service industry.”

    Very serious claims. Sounds like regular imperialist propaganda/misinformed liberal slander against both states, however could you provide evidence? Genuinely asking.


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