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1984. Daniel Bensaïd: Marxism against Totalitarianism

4 October 2021
Daniel Bensaid

From colloquiums to seminars, from articles to opinion pieces, a thesis has spread to the point of acquiring the quiet force of a commonplace: it is to Marx himself, and not to Stalin or Lenin, that the original sin and the inevitable metamorphosis of the socialist paradise into a totalitarian hell can be traced.

Marx supposedly bears the crushing responsibility of reducing the law to a mere artifice of domination, of denying the juridical moment and of dissolving the specific sphere of law into that of power; of having liquidated all theory of politics and of the state in favour of a vulgar economic determinism.

This great theoretical and institutional vacuum became the promised land of the polymorphous single-party system and the cradle of the totalitarian state which, by its very principle, denies the rule of law and excludes any possibility of internal opposition in society.

At the very root of the sin lies the twin metaphysical illusion in the emancipatory mission of the proletariat and in the idea of revolution.

The stakes are high, for several reasons. Firstly, because the state of siege declared against Marxism goes far beyond the realm of an ideological contest. It is part of a general offensive against the working class and against the oppressed peoples. Secondly, because a false trial can sometimes hide a real problem or dissuade a response to it, under the well-known pretext of not wanting to crying with the wolves.

The state, liberties and the law

The case against Marx is based on a melange of inconsistencies and ignorance.

1. It is not true that Marx denied the political any specific status

Before asserting such an enormity, one should take the trouble to reread, or read, many pages, from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to the Critique of the Gotha Programme, through The 18th Brumaire and the writings on Germany and the Civil War. It would be difficult to show that these texts contain no theory of the state at all, or reduce the state to a mere reflection of economic relations.

The real criticism of Marx by his detractors is more specific: they accuse him of abandoning the terrain of classical political philosophy. This philosophy looked for a political system that would rescue the unity of a society that was atomised through the generalisation of market relations and the law of competition. It was looking for criteria of legitimacy that would be able to have a particular power accepted as the incarnation of the general interest.

The questions Marx asked himself were indeed different. He shifted from the debate on institutional balances to that on the foundations of the state, its historical and social determinations, in other words: its class roots. From then on, his efforts led him down paths which, while excluding all speculation on the institutions of the future society, were nonetheless profoundly political:

- The conditions of access of the proletariat to political struggle, that is to say the organisational, trade-union and partisan forms of the workers’ movement.

- The strategic conditions of the political emancipation of the proletariat, meaning (starting from the experience of the Commune) the destruction of the old machinery of the bourgeois states, which does not mean the pure and simple abolition of the state as such but opens the possibility of its ‘withering away’.

- Economic and social conditions and their decline, which only indicate a historical trend, the forms of which it would be vain and pretentious to try to know beforehand.

These are all properly political problems, however for those who are nostalgic for classical philosophy they are only diversions from the inexhaustible dissertation on the division and balance of powers.

2. Marx did not hold elementary democratic freedoms in contempt, nor did he consider those trivial.

The oeuvre of Marx includes his unceasing struggle against privilege and inequality, against tyranny and for civil liberties, for the right to organize and of free expression, for the liberation of women and the self-determination of oppressed peoples.

Those who want make Marx the founding father of ‘totalitarianism’ are eager to detect in The Jewish Question the manifesto and itinerary of the apprentice dictator. Yet it is in this text that Marx, while analysing their relativity and their limits, emphasizes the indispensable achievements of bourgeois democratic gains. He describes bourgeois ‘political emancipation’ as ‘a big step forward’, ‘the final form of human emancipation within the hitherto existing world order’. What he questions is precisely the ‘incompleteness of political emancipation’, not in order to deny its scope, but to open up a the perspective of its overcoming in a sense that implies the conservation and qualitative transformation of these freedoms.1

These theoretical limits of bourgeois democratic politics soon find their practical verification in the revolutions of 1848, and especially in the June days that draw a bloody line of demarcation between proletariat and bourgeoisie.

From this point on Marx permitted a warmer light to fall even on human rights. With unsurpassed precision, he demonstrated the bourgeois class content in them, but he also pointed out their futural content, which at that time still did not have a basis. He discovered private property as the dominant right among human rights, and as the reason why these other rights only appeared more disjointed than before. When Marx rejects private property as the bourgeois barrier to human rights, does he reject freedom, the resistance of the people to oppression, and security as other declarations of rights? Absolutely not..., freedom is criticized so little that, quite the contrary, it is that human right whose radiance and humanity provide the standards for Marx's critique of private property.2


3. Marx did not dissolve the proper sphere of the law into an arbitrary, unlimited power.

Like the state, the law as a specific institutionalized sphere is not abolished by the proletarian revolution. It is only called upon to disappear. Since the Communist Manifesto, Marx situates the future of law, as that of religion and morality, in a historical perspective; these ‘forms of consciousness’ ‘cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms’, meaning with the arrival of communist society.3

In Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx returns to this question with a degree of profound depth that completely escapes his detractors. Legal right is unequal because it is not able to define effective equality between concrete individuals who are entangled in the whole of their social determinations. In order to measure them by the same yardstick, this right is forced to reduce concrete individuals to legal abstractions, in the same way that wage labour reduces concrete work to abstract labour, and living labour-power to a commodity.

Nonetheless this juridical equality is a considerable step forward. It can only be overcome in a society of abundance, where differences between individuals contribute directly to the blossoming of collective creativity, instead of being transformed by the mechanism of competition into inequality and humiliation. This is why Marx says that ‘the horizon of bourgeois law’ can only be overcome ‘in the higher phase of communist society’.

This is very different from a simple negation of law.

Diversity of class, pluralism, representation

It is Fichte, not Marx, who envisaged the dissolution of the state into the ‘kingdom of reason’ and of law in morality.

It is the Stalinist bureaucracy, not Marx, that decreed the seamless unity of the proletariat and the identity of society with the state, that crushed under Raison d’État the contradictions of evolving collective consciousness and merges all branches of law together in the sphere of public law. Marx envisaged the withering away of the state, of law, and of the family as a long process marking the passage from the era of need (of compulsory labour) to that of freedom – the passage from pre-history to history.

When the transparency of social relations is not effectively achieved but rather decreed by authority, there is no more room for contradiction, for divergence, for plurality of opinions: all differences become a crime or a deviation.

However, Marx himself clearly perceived the historical dialectic of class consciousness in the movement for proletarian self-emancipation; no party in the ‘ephemeral sense’ of the term can incarnate the totality of the ‘party in the historical sense’, meaning the sum of the experiences of the class in their diversity. All the more so since the persistence of the great divisions between city and countryside, between manual and intellectual labour, between men and women, never cease to nourish objective social differentiations within the class itself.

The position of Lenin in the 1921 debate on the position of trade-unions in the USSR shows that he as well was conscious of the need for institutional mechanisms to ensure the formulation and expression of different needs on the level of the class, that he was conscious that the state is unable to represent and unify these sometimes contradictory needs.

In some texts from the early twenties, notably Terrorism and Communism and even The New Course, Trotsky added to the confusion of exception and rule, to the justification of arbitrary power in the name of a postulated equation of the historical class with the power that supposedly fully represents it. To his credit he was able to clarify and systematize, through the analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration, the theory that in Marx and Lenin remained limited to fragmentary intuitions.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky defends the principle of the plurality of parties in a society transitioning towards socialism as a function of the ‘heterogeneity of the proletariat’: because ‘the consciousness of a class’ does not ‘strictly correspond to its place in society’, because a class is divided by inner antagonisms, it ‘may create several parties’.4

This single observation is heavy with consequences. In effect, recognizing the right to political pluralism implies a distinction between these parties and the state apparatus as well as an institutional delimitation of their conditions of functioning, expression, and participation in the exercise of power; in other words the codification of public law distinct from power, a true legal system of transition.

It is is necessary to note that the way the choice between direct and representative democracy is often posed, including in the revolutionary movement, obscures the question. It is true that Lenin and the Communist International rejected any attempt to reconcile the organs of soviet democracy (committees, councils) with the parliamentary organs of representative democracy. In light of the Russian revolution, the debate against Kautsky or the Austro-Marxists had strategic stakes: it was a matter of which of the two powers existing during a revolutionary crisis would prevail. The reformists on the other hand attempted to rescue the bourgeois state while tolerating, if they could not be eliminated, soviet forms of power on the condition of their subordination to the sovereign parliamentary institutions.

But, from there, the detractors of socialist democracy and apologists for parliamentary democracy claim to take the notion of direct democracy literally. As it supposedly denies all forms of representation, it can not but engender a sum of contradictory corporative interests and derive from this a lowest common denomination. Direct democracy is supposedly incapable of giving birth to a shared collective vision and a coherent general will. Powerless to do so, direct democracy would inevitably prepare the way for the single, totalitarian party that would impose itself over the different organs that are enclosed by the limited horizon of their workplace, neighbourhood or village.

However, direct democracy is not necessarily a pyramid that, to the detriment of all synthesis, operates unilaterally from the bottom to the top. Although Lenin insisted that elected representatives should at all times be subject to possible recall, he did not deduce from this the principle of binding mandates. Such mandates would paralyse any discussion and prevent the reciprocal modification of points of view as a result of their integration into a broader collective vision. Similarly, a system of direct democracy is not necessarily an unarticulated, unmediated collection of piecemeal needs. It can be a mechanism for choosing between important political, economic and social options, provided that there exist mediations that allow such choices to be made. This is the function of pluralism, whether it takes the form of a plurality of parties, the existence of currents or tendencies within the same party (but the right to tendency would mean nothing without the right to separate), or the existence of democratic trade-unionism independent of the State.

By definition, the organisation in political parties introduces a certain degree of ‘representation’ of the whole by the party that constitutes itself as its interpreter.

The antinomy between direct and representative democracy is often posed abstractly, from an exclusively institutional point of view, without ensuring to relate the system of political mediation to the organisation of the relations of production. Lenin was right to reject radically any compromise, any attempt at ‘mixed democracy’ since, within the framework of capitalist relations of production based on private ownership of the means of production and on the law of the market, this amounts to safeguarding and legitimising in a parliamentary form the dictatorship of the ruling class.

But once ‘the old machinery’ of the bourgeois state is smashed and the means of production are expropriated and socialized and planning directs the economy the mechanisms of representation are functionally part of a new context. On the basis of a planned economy, the mixed democracy demanded by for example Ferenc Feher and Agnès Heller takes on new meaning. The 1981 debates in Solidarnosc on the demand for free elections to the Sejm, or on the establishment of a bicameral system through the formation of an Economic Chamber bringing together delegates of the factory councils, should therefore not be seen as an attempt to resurrect the old parliamentarianism.

These demands for democratic institutions, like all democratic demands (freedom of press and organisation) in a bureaucratic post-capitalist society very quickly take on a concrete social meaning: instead of restoring a formal representation, behind the back of which private property continues to dictate its law, such demands open up the way for the free association of workers and the effective socialisation of production.

Because he had gone furthest in analysing and criticising bureaucratic degeneration, Trotsky was the first to profoundly grasp the fate of a society devoured by the state:

‘L'État, c'est moi’ is almost a liberal formula by comparison with the actualities of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Louis XIV identified himself only with the state. The Popes of Rome identified themselves with both the state and the church – but only during the epoch of temporal power. The totalitarian state goes far beyond Caesaro-Papism, for it has encompassed the entire economy of the country as well. Stalin can justly say, unlike the Roi Soleil, ‘La Société, c'est moi’.


So far we drew a definitive line between revolution and counter-revolution, between revolutionary Marxism and bureaucratic totalitarianism.

Legality of transition, law, morality

The status of law, morality, knowledge and their relative autonomy in regards to the established power are logically part of this legality of the transition period.

The planned economy initiates a progressive socialisation of production, it does not with one fell swoop market relations. Those survive, constrained and controlled by the plan: access to consumption is not and cannot be planned. It is mediated by an income in the form of a wage. The individual therefore continues to lead a double life, as producer and consumer, the reconciliation of which still requires the existence of political mediations. Notably Pashukanis had foreseen this:

Nevertheless, until the end of the present transitional period, the proletariat necessarily must use these forms inherited from bourgeois society in its class interest, and then exhaust them […] The proletariat must critically and soberly relate not only to the bourgeois state and to bourgeois morality, but even to its own state and to its own proletarian morality, i.e. it must recognize the historical necessity of their existence as well as of their disappearance.5


Perceiving how the law is rooted in market relations, Pasukanis argues that it cannot be abolished, but rather must wither away. However, he limits this notion to so-called ‘private law’, without drawing the full consequences of his argument for the terrains of public law and institutions. Paradoxically, his silence on this matter allowed the Stalinist bureaucracy to condemn him as ultra-left, at a time when the bureaucracy was turning its back on Marx by proclaiming the need to strengthen the state, and its henchman, Vichynsky, undertook to theorise ‘socialist law’ as a system of norms deduced from the will of the dominant class (the proletariat). This sociological determinism leaves out the decisive question: who interprets this will and who guarantees the authenticity of this interpretation?

With Vichynsky, Soviet law is no longer a purified bourgeois law, but a new type of law, whose tautological definition postulates the transparency of social relations: henceforth law is ‘the totality of the rules of human conduct established by the state as the power of the ruling class’. By basing the legitimacy of this law in the last instance on a metaphysics of class instinct, directly interpreted by the single party or its leader, it makes arbitrariness and oppression into the rule.

Here again, it is good to consider the historical dilemma with the hindsight of a philosopher who was educated by the double experience of Nazism and Stalinism. In this regard, each word of Ernst Bloch carries the weight of tragedy and lucidity:

Furthermore, there is no authentic form of the state, so long as there is a state at all, which ought not democratically to respect the tribute of vice to virtue that the bourgeois constitutional state represented; the issue is obviously the same even when it is a question of an authentic virtue that does not only use the state as a means toward the end of bringing about its own demise. If juridical formalism, which is as dissimulating as it is empty, disappeared, then the content, which no longer needed a veil, goes with it, but not the democratic form of law that no longer has an emptiness or imperfection. The bourgeois constitutional state, which struggled with bourgeois human rights, disappears with the bourgeois state, but bourgeois human rights can so little afford to disappear when the state is constructed socialistically that they accompany it so far as they are not bourgeois. One cannot enter into socialism with a bourgeois constitutional state sitting over the poor and rich as a formal instrument that is ideological and ultimately deceptive. But if one is already within socialism, one of the signs is that it has adopted and cleansed the flag of human rights that were abused in the bourgeois constitutional state and that were completely annihilated in the thoroughly despotic fascist state of illegality.6

Bloch affirms and upholds human rights as ‘the concrete utopian content of a promise to which the ‘‘real revolution’’ can hold itself. In this sense, they point ‘far beyond the bourgeois horizon’. This critical humanism leads back rather than away from Marx. Yet, in order to rescue the need for a transitional right from bureaucratic abuse, Bloch see no other way than defending again the old trench of natural law against positive law. The referent of this natural law escapes history. It lies in an absolute ethical postulate, that of human dignity.

Repeating after Brecht that the human being, and not only its clause, does not like to taking a boot to the face, Bloch thus calls to the rescue ‘the human being’, in its abstract generality, and falls back into the old antinomy of the individual and the collective.

His conclusion, ‘no democracy without socialism, no socialism without democracy’, does not need this philosophical diversion to the edge of history. The foundation of a right and a morality that are not subordinated to power can take shape in the diversity of the class itself, in the dialectic of the universal and the particular which continues to run through it, well beyond the abolition of capitalism. The transformation of the division of labour and of mentalities does not proceed at the same pace as the decrees on the abolition of private property of the means of production and the planning of the economy.

The fate of morality is largely linked to that of law. In capitalist society, the left hand of the bourgeois must be able to ignore what the right hand does. As soon as relations between individuals are governed by a law that has lost its divine or natural attributes, the possibility of a refuge where subjective rights and freedom of conscience are maintained opens up. Secularised, morality maintains its distance from the vagaries of positive law.

Bloch argues that a society can only dispense with ‘this inner sanctum’ when there is ‘no longer any reason to oppose a truly good society’. Yet a vulgar interpretation would be that Marxism abolished this sanctum of autonomous judgement, fragile with all of its uncertainties and ambiguities, by imposing an external and universal norm: the subordination of the end to the means. The idea that to an atheist everything is permitted could make Dostoyevsky dizzy. Yet Plekhanov, Lenin, and Trotsky are the opposite of cynics or demagogues. They distinguish between the manoeuvres and tricks that are inevitable in politics, in the face of powerful and unscrupulous enemies, and a moral conduct whose criteria are rigorous and binding. This practical morality does not easily accommodate the daily compromises between intent and action, between public and private life. It does not benefit from the indulgences of the confessional. It does not provide the second chance of any purgatory. Its criteria, while immanent to the historical process, are all the more demanding. Its compass is the awakening and raising of the collective consciousness of the proletariat. This is why Lenin takes seriously his formula that ‘only truth is revolutionary’. This is why Trotsky considers moral that which ‘leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man’.7

This is why Guevara gives the devalued ‘virtues’ of the bourgeoisie, courage, honesty, dedication, new and concrete historical content. The practical mediation of the class struggle, the famous ‘criterion of practice’, so dear to Lenin, tends to make politics and morality, the judgement of fact and the judgement of value, coincide. But there is still a long way to go from the tendency to its culmination. Not any more than law does morality dissolve immediately into politics. Nor does morality dissolve into law. It remains part of the distance between the part and the whole, between the class and the party (even the most revolutionary one), between an emancipated humanity and the class that is only beginning to free itself from its chains. Even when freed from religion, Pashukanis noted, a moral remains a moral, a subjective and private interpretation of historical interests. Even if morality can no longer ignore its social and political foundations, it continues, in the name of historical anticipation, to exert a healthy pressure on them.

By rejecting a new kind of enlightened despotism that would perceive people only as their class, reducing them to mere containers or incidents of a class raised to the status of an essence, Bloch again uncovered the metaphysics that haunt a bureaucratised Marxism.

All reciprocal substitution of politics and morals is inauthentic [...]. But no
matter how much it is misused and used as a substitute, ethical consciousness has enough elements that belong to tomorrow and the next day. Morals judge the dust
and hypocrisy that morals have become; for from where, except from morals, could hypocrisy be judged?8

Yet, as with law, Bloch justifies the actuality and future of an ethic in the name of an unresolved conflict between the individual and the community. But more concretely they are founded in how the historical class exceeds its ephemeral representations and, beyond that, how the human exceeds class.

For Marx, since the 1844 manuscripts, the perfect identification of the individual with society, with fully socialised humanity is nothing but a historical horizon that supposes that all men and women in their individual existence have a conscious relation to humanity as such. The fact that he subsequently defined the first steps and the political means to go in this direction does not allow for shortcuts that would allow a leap to the limits of this horizon.

Science, knowledge, conscience

Those who today want to see Marxism as the logical origin of ‘totalitarianism’ eagerly draw on Hannah Arendt for material for their discourse. But for her, the original sin concerns the theory of knowledge. If there is a rationality of history, an exhaustive rationality of historical reality governed by a principle of causality, then the Party is the all-powerful scientific discoverer.

Yet this is to pass by Marx without seeing him, without measuring the break that separates him from Hegel or the distance between him and positivism. The bureaucracy has set Raison d’État against historical consciousness. It rehabilitated abstract rationalism at the very moment when it sunk into the delirium of terror. It disguised ‘scientific socialism’ as ‘socialist science’. In the name of Marx, it murdered Marx. By giving credence to this deception, Raymond Aron and Castoriadis, while apparently intransigently democratic, do bureaucracy a great service: in a way they authenticate the usurpation.

Revolutionary and militant Marxism is not nostalgic for exact science. It has no need for absolute or revealed truth.

Based in history that is made, it is a revolutionary knowledge, a critical theory, an interpretation that is constantly corrected, ‘an indefinite verification’. The future it searches is not a fate, but a probability. From the point of view of the action to be taken, this probability is real. Historical rationality is not formal and univocal, it is open and dialectical.

As part of this horizon, the revolutionary party is not a technocratic reissue of the ‘great watchmaker’ nor a reincarnation of the fully lucid and unified subject of classical psychology. It is the complicated knot tying together inherited conditions and a project, mediating between action and consciousness, between the objective and the subjective. Its mediation does not leave the two terms disjointed and intact. This is why, if it cannot claim to say outright ‘the truth about the truth’, it can translate into action a part of this historical truth in which it finds itself ‘in internal exclusion’.

In L'Invention démocratique. Les Limites de la domination totalitaire Lefort underlines the tendency of every society to give power a body, to ‘embody’ it. From the absolute monarch to ‘the father of the people’, through all the military or presidential variants of Bonapartism, there is no shortage of figures of this embodiment.

Accused of carrying totalitarianism within itself, Marxism on the contrary expresses the most radical challenge to any form of an incarnation of power. By outlining the perspective of the decline of the state, it envisages the transitional exercise of a de-localised and ‘disembodied’ power, of a social democracy, which would truly mark the exit from our religious and mythological prehistory.

It is not surprising that such a leap implies a revolution in notions of knowledge or truth. Only a non-religious vision of history makes it possible to act responsibly, to commit oneself and to fight, to take the most extreme risks if necessary, on the basis of convictions and truths that Lenin called ‘relative’; in other words, without the need to intoxicate oneself with any kind of absolute.

Its defamations and defamations removed, revolutionary Marxism is a radical anti-totalitarianism.

French original on the Daniel Bensaïd site.

1 Marx, On The Jewish Question, 1844. Online at: [].

2 Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity (Cambridge, MA, 1986), p. 177.

3 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848. Online at: [].

4 Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1936. Online at: [].

5 Evgeny Pashukanis, The General Theory of Law and Marxism, 1924. Online at: [].

6  Bloch, Natural Law, p. 142.

7 Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, 1938. Online at: [].

8 Bloch, Natural Law, p. 241, 242.

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