Differences between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and Maoism

Differences between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and Maoism
Differences between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and Maoism

While teaching a module on the Communist Manifesto (and the Manifesto alone), a student of mine admitted to struggle with different forms of Marxism. Though I am not an expert on these, being schooled in Marxism only, it became apparent that I should perhaps have a somewhat rudimentary knowledge of what the differences are in order to satisfy different interests. At the same time, there are many forms of Marxism – so to enumerate all the differences is like taking up on enumerating the differences between differences of Christianity (of which there are certainly more variants, my point is that it is an equally impossible task). So in what follows, a few paragraphs on the major Marxist views are presented.


Marx and Engels
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Marxism is perhaps the most uncertain ideology in the Marxist school, precisely because we are still reading Marx – and thus also keep interpreting Marx. Matters are not made any easier because when we approach Marxism as an ideology, there is a certain quest for purity – a ‘pure’ Marxist view (which is, obvious to most academics, not really possible). So Marxism refers to both what Marx thought and how to interpret him. The general agreement is that Marx identified ‘class struggle’ in history; all of history is thus approach from the antagonistic confrontation between the classes. To be sure, this antagonism is also at the core of historical progress.

Fast forward to the classical age (I use Foucault’s term here, classical age is the period before the French Revolution), Marx identifies an antagonism between the capitalist bourgeois class and the aristocratic class; where the former wins the struggle and establishes a capitalist society. But of course this does not eliminate the antagonisms, but instead creates a new antagonistic relation, now between the capitalists and the proletariat (workers). Their clash is both necessary and unavoidable, it is almost pre-determined by the conditions set out by capitalism (its ‘inherent contradictions’) – the proletariat, once united, will eventually overthrow the capitalists and create a democratic classless society.5

Marx was pretty sure about the eventual fall of capitalism, so much so that he heralded the idea that there is no point of waiting for it to fall. Capitalism functions in cycles of booms and recessions, it needs unemployment, it needs wage labour, etc. For Marx, it eventually comes down to the inevitability of the proletariat to revolt against the workings of the free market (as we often see with the recessions – all their hard work goes to nothing, while a handful of capitalists profit from the instability that they themselves have caused). Note that Marx does not predict a violent overthrow, though it is certainly the case that he does not exclude it. In his lifetime, he did not incite any violence (to my knowledge at least), and in fact the Manifesto treats this kind of violence somewhat mockingly:

They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze

A little before this, the Manifesto mentions that a “violent overthrow [gewaltsamen Sturz] of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat”. But we should be careful here in how we read ‘violent’, for the German word easily lends to a translation of an overthrow by force. That is, ‘gewaltsamen’ could be rendered as pertaining to a forcible overthrow, one that does not follow the currently established procedures (e.g. through election), but not necessarily one that is violent.

Additionally, for Marx the revolt must be a global revolt – the interest of the proletariat is a global interest and the possibility of the classless society is only feasible if the movement is a global movement. There is no division in ethnicity, nationality, sex, etc. – it is in the interest of the proletariat to put all differences aside (though not to disregard them) in their struggle against the capitalist class.


Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Lenin largely builds on Marx, but he is a ‘professional revolutionary’ (that’s what Arendt calls him, and I am sticking with that). While Marx did not articulate much on the political workings of the revolution and was mainly concerned with the flaws in the economy, Lenin thought to articulate how the revolution should proceed in political terms (and so did almost everyone else after Marx). As we saw before, Marx only mentioned that the new classless society would be democratic, but how it would come about, or even in what sense democratic (representative? participatory? direct? etc.), was pretty much left open to the following theorists. The Manifesto only mentions that establishing of democracy by the proletariat after the revolution is a priority: “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy”; but it leaves the details rather empty.

Here, Lenin stepped in to dictate the organisation of the proletariat. In my expertise with ‘the political’, I would wager that Lenin was the sole Marxist after Marx to understand this notion without its concrete articulation. The political (in its Schmittian formulation) is a decision between friend and enemy.  It is a decision on the concrete existence of the enemy that is to be repelled. I emphasise concrete because for the future Marxists that will be dealt with here, this concreteness disappears into a paradoxically ephemeral yet constant enemy. What Lenin envisaged is a ‘vanguard party’ that would represent the proletariat in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. The idea was that a party would help complete the inevitable end: a classless society. For as long that is not the case, there would be a need for a party to work out all the details. The core difference here is with other Marxists of the time, who did not envisage any political groupings as above others, they only understood the progression towards the classless society in egalitarian terms. With Lenin we thus get the popularisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. While there is good reason to assume that contemporary Marxist theorists were not in agreement with Lenin, there is an equally good reason to assume that Lenin was not truly in agreement with himself. His work changes towards a more accepted view prior to the revolution (as if to gain popularity) and returns back to his previous views after. In fact, Arendt’s point that Lenin was a ‘professional revolutionary’ is meant as a point of critique, not praise of any sort.


  1. Marx says almost nothing on what democratic is.
  2. This is a delicate matter, but at the same time something that has become rather obvious since the last financial crisis. Lenin analyses the amount of foreign capital in national banks (in Russia at the time, 3/4 of the Russian bank capital came from France, Germany and Britain) and makes a connection with the earnings of this foreign capital to the domestic share. The conclusion is quite simple: the investors will take the profits, naturally; but they will also maintain a system of dependency upon their capital with the industry (oil, metallurgy and cement industry). Fast forward to present day financial crisis in, say, Greece and the picture becomes quite clear: if Greece wants to get out of the financial crisis, it has to accept the conditions of the foreign investors, but by doing so, it has to give up on its share of the profit unconditionally and thus remain dependent on the foreign capitcal ad infinitum.
  3. Additionally, he is the main influence on what Popper calls ‘the problem of demarcation’ (i.e. the difference between science and pseudo-science) – they are so close, that wants to call it plagiarism....
  4. For those looking for a source, you’ll have to consult the statistical yearbooks from USSR. There you would find the following data: 1922 – 1; 1940 – 11; 1960 – 50; 1965 – 68; 1970 – 99; 1975 -131; 1980 – 162; 1981 – 167. Do note that there are plenty of historians who would claim that these numbers are probably unreliable, that they were at a tremendous human cost, that they were despite Stalin, or all three of these points.
  5. Marx says almost nothing on what democratic is.

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