Mises Wire

Soviet Terror Was the Natural Evolution of Marx's Communism

Mises Wire Antony Sammeroff

According to Marx, a person’s class determines their ideology. The content of their mind reflects the role their class plays in the current stage of history, which is in turn determined by the developmental stage of the means of production. A person’s class ideology provides them with an interpretation of reality that allows them to behave in the interests of their class. Accordingly, ideologies are collective phenomenon. They are not primarily a reflection of a person’s individual thinking, evaluation of information, or experience. They are largely preconditioned by that individual’s place in the class structure of society.

Mises argues that if this were true, then all members of each class would have to hold identical ideas. Authors and political agitators would convey the same essential points as all other writers of their class, and those they claim to represent would universally approve of what they have to say. “There is no room in Marxism for the assumption that the various members of the same class could have serious disagreements in ideology. There exists for each class only one ideology.”1 It follows from this that if a proletarian person expresses an opinion that is at odds with the correct class doctrine then he can’t really belong to the working class. Exposing his (bourgeois) background is sufficient to discredit him. There is no need to refute his arguments by discursive reasoning. If there are no signs of middle-class privilege in his background, then all that can be said for him is that he is a traitor. He can’t be sincere in his rejection of the correct position, because his class consciousness should provide him with access to the truth. He must be choosing to override it. He is “a rogue, a Judas, a snake in the grass,” as Mises puts it. “In fighting such a betrayer all means are permissible.”2

Few Marxists would readily admit to believing that all people of the same class must share the same ideology. Mises must be taking a very close and literal reading of Marx. He is keen to point out that Marx and Engels themselves had bourgeois backgrounds, and yet they hatched up the class ideology of the proletarian class. This alone would subvert a to-the-letter reading of their theory. It would perhaps be more charitable to assume that Marx was saying that the “correct” class ideology is the active force in history and will prove to be so once matters are settled. Time marches on and the means of production develop, pushing society forward in an inevitable direction, heedless of the petty intellectual disputes and trivial interpersonal squabbles of members of the same class as to what course of action would serve their interests.

Marx and Engels had no doubt as to what the correct doctrine of the proletariat ought to be. It was their own, naturally. Mises indicts the pair with never having engaged in proper discussion of their theories with dissenters. Contemporary scientists debated the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Darwin, but Marx just concluded that his critics were either “bourgeois idiots” or “proletarian traitors.”3  There was an orthodoxy to be upheld, and anyone who deviated from it was furiously denounced, insulted, and ridiculed. Originally Marx was the supreme authority on the correct position. When he died, that responsibility was passed on to Engels. Karl Johann Kautsky was next. Kautsky was a communist who had been tasked by the aging Engels with compiling a book called "Theories of Surplus Value" from a draft manuscript Marx had originally intended to become the fourth volume of Das Kapital. Even though Kautsky was an outspoken critic of the Bolshevik Revolution, exchanging long polemics with Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin, Lenin overtook him as the commanding figure of Marxism in the twentieth century once he rose to power in 1917.

Here emerged a definite break in Marxian orthodoxy. Marx had believed that the working class had to transform their consciousness over decades through civil and national wars in order to “become qualified for political power.”4  For Lenin, it was the professional revolutionary, not the masses, who were central to the transformation of society. He wrote in 1902 that, “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.”5  It was therefore necessary and justified for a small “vanguard” of socialists, those whose consciousness was already way ahead of the crowd, to seize power by revolutionary force. In doing so he provided a justification for the sudden revolution of 1917 and all other violent socialist uprisings of the future.6

Mises notes that—unlike Marx, Engels, and Kautsky—Lenin did not have to satisfy himself with assassinating the character of those who opposed him. As dictator he could wipe his opponents out literally. Workers demonstrated against Lenin in Petrograd and their leaders were shot by the Soviet police.7  Thousands of sailors who were former supporters of Lenin were massacred by the Red Army for revolting in Kronstradt.8  Estimates of how many were killed by the Bolsheviks after the beginning of the Russian Civil War in 1918 range from ten thousand9  to over ten times that number.10  Lenin’s army used chemical weapons on farmers who resisted the confiscation of the grain they had grown in the Tambov Rebellion of 1920–21, where around one hundred thousand peasants were arrested and fifteen thousand shot dead.11  Even Kautsky wrote to plead with Lenin against using violence, terrorism, and taking hostages because it was indiscriminate and intended to frighten the civilian population.12  Stalin notoriously took Lenin’s example to extremes. He liquidated former allies, including comrade-turned-rival Trotsky, whom he famously had tracked down and killed with an ice pick in Mexico City. As Marx had anathematized socialist contemporaries who deviated from his system by word, Stalin exterminated devoted Marxists who had been great champions of the proletarian cause by deed. Those who were captured were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. As Mises puts it, only those living abroad in noncommunist democracies, dominated by what the Soviet State considered to be “Plutodemocratic reactionaries,” were “permitted to die in their beds.”13

Mises is trying to highlight that the Soviet Union was not aberrant to Marxism, but that actually existing communism took after the example Marx left his adherents. Thomas Sowell, a well-respected economist—himself a former Marxist—gave a very accessible and even-handed presentation of Marx’s views in his book Marxism (1985). Even he has to echo Mises on this point, concluding in the final chapter that:

Much as Marx may have explicitly advocated the idea of a democratic workers’ government, his own personal style was dictatorial, manipulative, and intolerant. Those who complain that the Soviet Union has betrayed Marx have in mind the intellectual theories rather than the actual behavior of Marx the man….While social democrats might well claim to be truer to Marxian theories, the Communists have been truer to Marxian practice.14  

Contemporary Marxists may continue to claim that the Soviet Union was “not real communism,” but during the period where its excess and atrocities were taking place left-wing intellectuals were silent, or even went to great lengths to defend the regime. In fact, virtually every regime claiming to be socialist had a honeymoon period where it was enthusiastically praised by prominent Western intellectuals. Only after their failure does anyone claim those regimes were not really socialist.15

Engels said at Marx’s funeral that his friend and collaborator had discovered the law of development of human history. Marx believed that his theory constituted the one correct proletarian ideology. But the proposition that there is one and only one correct proletarian ideology, as well as the disputes between different socialist factions such as the anarchists and statists, the revolutionaries and moderates, and even among different Marxists such as Kautsky and Lenin must give rise to the question of how the correct ideology can even be ascertained from all the false ones.

If it were simply a case of majority rule, then Marx would surely have to favor something approximating parliamentary democracy. Since Marx held that most people were proletarians and that their class provided them with the correct ideology, a majority vote should naturally turn out the sort of policies that would serve the interest of the working class. The problem with this, according to Mises, is that Marx and his successors never really had any interest in submitting their views to the judgement of the majority.16  Marx wasn’t a fan of decisions by ballot, and he was mistrustful of the masses in general—even if this seems to fly in the face of his theories. Perhaps he took the (let’s say Leninist) view that he was out at the vanguard of intellectual development, and that the majority could hardly be expected to realize their place in history even if the decision-making power was given over to them. Clearly, the consciousness of the proletariat still needed much raising. Parliamentary democracy could not be seen as much more than a bourgeois trapping of liberal society. That is to say a halfway house. Not radical enough.

The state, according to Marx, was an organ of coercion in any society. It didn’t matter if it was democratically derived or not.17  In a capitalist society it was simply, “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”18  Therefore, Marx favored revolutionary action. He celebrated the June Days uprising of Paris in 1848. This action was triggered by plans of the short-lived republican government of President Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) to close the national workshops, places of work which had provided for the unemployed. A small minority of Parisians rebelled against the elected government which was supported by the majority in a parliamentary election where all men could vote.

Marx also heroicized the Paris Commune, especially in a pamphlet entitled The Civil War in France (1870). This sold far more copies in his lifetime than The Communist Manifesto.19  In this event, a group of radical socialist revolutionaries usurped a regime which had been established by the overwhelming majority of the French people’s representatives and managed to rule Paris from the March 18 to May 28 in 1871. “Here,” writes Mises, “He found his ideal of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”20  Engels confirms this, writing in his introduction to the book, “Look at the Paris commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”21

When citing these examples, Mises clearly means to highlight Marx’s contempt for democratic governance based upon majority rule. Quotes can easily be found from Marx and Engels to support Mises’s view. For example, in The Civil War in France, Marx derides parliamentary democracy as a means of “deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament.”22  He and Engels cautioned against the confusion of “political emancipation with human emancipation.”23  Democracy alone would not provide freedom in the Marxian view. That being said, The Civil War in France also praised the Paris Commune specifically for universal suffrage, along with an open society, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a nonmilitaristic viewpoint.24  In Capital, Marx wrote that “the gradually surging revolt of the working class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labor,”25  demonstrating that he did believe that at least some achievements could be made through democratic means. The Communist Manifesto described “the first step in the revolution” as being “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy,” and Marx praised the United States in contrast to Russia for giving the masses more political power.26  This suggests that he at least favored parliamentary democracy to feudalism. Engels wrote later in his life that, “the bourgeoisie and the government came to be more afraid of the legal than the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those rebellion.”27

It is difficult to extract from Marx a clear and consistent view of democracy. Perhaps he favored it whenever he felt it would further his program and disavowed it whenever he saw it as an impediment to something more radical. Sowell argues that it is necessary to consider Marx in his historical context to understand his writings on democracy. Most of what he wrote were polemics arguing against his intellectual opponents. Since most of the people he disagreed with were liberals, supporters of democratic government and of free markets, he placed far more emphasis on his criticisms of democracy than on what he took to be its virtues.28

Sowell continues, “When Marx and Engels began writing in the 1840s, voting rights for the masses were so rare that a revolution in the sense of a radical transformation and in the sense of an armed uprising were virtually synonymous.”29  He suggests that Marx believed in the possibility of a peaceful revolution, even urging the French workers to, “calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty” because an uprising would be “desperate folly.” On the other hand, Marx was essentially certain that those who held state power and wielded it on behalf of the bourgeois would hardly allow a peaceful revolution to take place without attempting to put it down violently. This would make violent revolution a necessity.

While giving Marx the benefit of the doubt we should not overlook the fact that he still justified acts of postrevolutionary terrorism during the Paris Commune30  and even the taking of hostages.31  Engels may have been less bloodthirsty, writing, “Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.”32  But in Marx can be found the doctrine of historical justification, which states that what might not be morally acceptable any longer is justified in its own historical context. This included slavery and imperialism—which according to Marx had been necessary to advance more primitive societies into the modern era.33  Marx’s justifications of the terrorism of the Paris Commune would be invoked to justify atrocities in the name of building utopia under Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the often romanticized revolutionary government of Cuba, which instituted firing squads, imprisoned political dissidents, established forced labor camps, undertook religious repression, and restricted the movement of Cubans on the island while preventing them from leaving it. In a 1966 speech, Che Guevara declared that “To establish Socialism rivers of blood must flow.”34  Indeed they did.

Marx did not necessarily take revolution to be the physical act of rebellion. Fundamentally it was supposed to be a transformation in consciousness that led to the transformation of society—by whatever means history deemed necessary. He wrote in The Class Struggles in France (1848–1850) that: “The proletariat did not allow itself to be provoked to revolt, because it was on the verge of making a revolution.”35  However, he never renounced violence as an instrument of revolution. He urged socialist parties across western and central Europe to pursue revolutionary methods over the ballot box. The Russian communists can therefore be taken as his faithful disciples. They put his views into practice. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 elections were held by the Bolsheviks in which every adult had the right to vote representatives into the Russian Constituent Assembly. They are widely recognized to be the first free elections in Russia’s long history. The Socialist Revolutionary Party topped the polls on the strength of support from the country’s rural peasantry. Three-quarters of the people had voted against the communists, but the Constituent Assembly was only allowed to meet for around thirteen hours before Lenin had troops loyal to him disperse representatives of the non-Bolshevik parties by force of arms and dissolve the assembly altogether. The Bolsheviks put in place their own unelected government headed by Lenin. They established, like the socialists of the Paris Commune before them, the dictatorial rule of a minority. “The head of the Soviet power became the supreme pontiff of the Marxian sect,” laments Mises. His title was not secured by a popular mandate of the people but only on the basis of having defeated his rivals in a bloody civil war.36

Perhaps we could put Marx’s support of revolutionary movements that did not have popular support down to his Hegelian view that nothing changes without the struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. Hegel believed that humanity advances and progresses only through conflict, war, and revolution. Peace and harmony do not make for progress.37  It’s worthy of note that this is the polar opposite of the Misesian view, which is that societies progress and advance through peaceful cooperation under the international division of labor. Each country and individual is better suited to some forms of production than others, and when they specialize and trade, overall production increases, making everyone more wealthy. “If the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth produce his bread for himself.”38  Any nation engaging in civil or international conflict squanders resources, impoverishes their own people, and loses the opportunity to trade for mutual benefit. People in warring nations must accept inferior, ersatz goods in place of the products they preferred to import. Whatever is destroyed in a conflict must then be replaced at great expense. However, where the principle of private ownership of the means of production is upheld, and capital, labor, and commodities can travel freely across borders, no individual has an interest in the expansion of the size of his nation’s territory. “Conquest does not pay and war becomes obsolete.”39

For a liberal, intellectual opponents must be won over to a position by reason alone. Without a popular mandate of the people, the liberal program of private property, free trade, noninterventionism, democracy, and limited government can never assert itself as the dominant policy for long. Mises concludes that because under Marxism ideologies come from our class rather than our faculty of reason, our disputes cannot so easily be settled over a cup of tea. They can’t even be decided by a majority vote. With no peaceful means of solving our disputes, civil war is really the only option left to us. “The mark of the good ideology,” Mises writes to summarize, “is the fact that its supporters succeeded in conquering and liquidating their opponents.”40

  • 1Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (1957; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 2005), p. 87.
  • 2Mises, Theory and History, p. 87.
  • 3Mises cites “bourgeois stupidity” (about Jeremy Bentham, Das Kapital, vol. 1, p. 574), "bourgeois cretinism" (about Antoine Destutt de Tracy, ibid., vol. 2, p. 465), and so on, as examples. See Mises, p. 58.
  • 4Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, trans. Dona Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), p. 92.
  • 5V. I. Lenin, “What Is to Be Done?,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing Office, 1952), part 1, p. 233.
  • 6Leninist views are still popular among Marxists today, perhaps because they are themselves impatient for revolution and like to think themselves ahead of the crowd, at the vanguard of revolutionary class consciousness.
  • 7Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 531.
  • 8Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin, p. 535.
  • 9James Ryan, Lenin's Terror: The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012), p. 2.
  • 10W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), p. 384.
  • 11Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 811.
  • 12Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Contribution to the Natural History of Revolution, trans. W.H. Kerridge (1920; repr., Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011), chap. 8 s.v. “The Terror.”
  • 13Mises, Theory and History, p. 88.
  • 14Thomas Sowell, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985; repr., Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011), p. 188–89.
  • 15This history is documented by Kristian Niemietz, Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2019).
  • 16Mises, Theory and History, p. 88.
  • 17Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Civil War in France, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955), p. 385.
  • 18Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx and Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 9.
  • 19Payne, Marx (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 426.
  • 20Mises, Theory and History, p. 89.
  • 21Marx and Engels, The Civil War in France, p. 362.
  • 22Marx and Engels, The Civil War in France, p. 520.
  • 23Marx and Engels, The Holy Family (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), pp. 118, 128.
  • 24Sowell, Marxism, p. 144.
  • 25Marx, The Class Struggles in France (1848–1850), in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, p. 130.
  • 26Sowell, Marxism, p. 148.
  • 27Marx, The Class Struggles in France, p. 130.
  • 28Sowell, Marxism, p. 145.
  • 29Sowell, Marxism, p. 148.
  • 30Marx and Engels, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 112.
  • 31Marx, “The Civil War in France,” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, p.
  • 32Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 303.
  • 33Marx and Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, pp. 450–51, 480–81.
  • 34Mike Gonzalez, “El Che: The Crass Marketing of a Sadistic Racist,” Heritage Foundation, Jan. 11, 2012, https://www.heritage.org/political-process/commentary/el-che-the-crass-marketing-sadistic-racist.
  • 35Marx, The Class Struggles in France (1848–1850), p. 136.
  • 36Mises, Theory and History, p. 89.
  • 37Rius, Introducing Marx, new ed. (London: Icon Books Ltd., 1999), p. 21.
  • 38Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, scholar’s ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), chap. 34, section 3.
  • 39Mises, Human Action, chap. 24, section 5.
  • 40Mises, Theory and History, p. 92.
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