Is Marxism right-wing?



Geoffrey M. Hodgson


I have proposed on Twitter that there is a case for regarding Marxism as right-wing rather than left-wing. The response by some has to been to question my academic credentials. These need no defence here. Instead I here make my case for re-labelling Marxism, in much more detail than I can in a 140-character tweet.

I have three major reasons for suggesting that we should describe Marxism as Right rather than Left. The first concerns the origins and original meanings of the terms Left and Right in the French Revolution of 1789. The second derives from a consideration of issues such as democracy, human rights and equality under the law, to which much of the Left has continued to serve lip-service. The third is based on how Marxist ideas played out in practice, particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Maoist victory in China in 1949.

Leon Trotsky

In his Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky claimed that that there was little difference between Stalinist Russia and fascism, apart from the nationalisation of the means of production. But for those who suffered famine, torture, death or deprivation of their rights, the dominant form of ownership made little different to their misery. There are more important criteria than legal forms of ownership for distinguishing Left from Right.

We should challenge the ideological conquest by Marxism of the territory labelled “Left”. Usages of terms can change. But some changes are more legitimate than others. The Marxist conquest of the Left did violence to its history, and to ideas and principles that many on the Left still cherish. It is time to reclaim the territory and undo the damage.

The original Left

During the French Revolution of 1789 those deputies most critical of the monarchy began to congregate on the seats to the left of the President’s chair in the National Constituent Assembly. Promoting liberty, equality and fraternity, they wished to limit the powers of the monarchy and to create a democratic republic. Conservative supporters of the aristocracy and the monarchy would congregate on the right side.

In August 1789 the Assembly published its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It upheld freedom of thought, of worship, of assembly, and from arbitrary arrest; it enshrined equality under the law and hailed private property as a basic right.

This Declaration was inspired by Enlightenment thinkers who had advocated universal human rights, including Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine. The Left promoted those universal human rights.

The Left leaders of the French Revolution advocated an individualistic, property-owning, market economy, just as the English Levellers had done in the 1640s and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s. Under the monarchy, the French revolutionaries had experienced the ill effects of state monopolies and other large agglomerations of economic power. They wanted none of them. As the Fabian socialist R. H. Tawney put it: “the dogma of the sanctity of private property was maintained as tenaciously by French Jacobins as by English Tories”.

Robert Owen

By contrast, the rising socialism in the nineteenth century put more emphasis on the levelling of income and wealth, and less on democracy and less on equal human rights under the law. This was true of “utopian socialists” such as Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. They emphasized fraternity, and the economic aspect of equality – but less so liberty, and less so equal rights. Owen in particular was hostile to democracy and to legal institutions.

Socialism was a child of the Enlightenment, but one that deserted much of its heritage. Legal and human rights were of a lesser concern. This was a major wrong turning. Instead, socialists lauded the scientific achievement of the Enlightenment, and wished to extend scientific principles to the analysis and government of human society. Science would determine what was good for society as a whole.

Enter Marxism

Marxism took this a number of steps further. The utopians had attempted to use the results of their version of science to design their perfect society. By contrast, Marxism postponed any detailed explanation of how the socialist future would work. Instead it concentrated on the “scientific” examination of the social and economic forces that supposedly would bring about the new social order.

Karl Marx

In his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Frederick Engels dismissed the principles and rights of the French Revolution as “nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie”. These principles and rights were sacrificed at the altar of class emancipation. Marx and Engels joined their version of socialism to the predicted victory of the proletariat in the class struggle, and its expropriation of the capitalist ruling class. This was a second major wrong turning.

But the working class may not be aware of the historic destiny that Marx and Engels ascribed to them: “It is not a question of what … the … proletariat … regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.” The presumed destiny of the proletariat became the great, teleological, organizing principle of Marxism.

Their normative arguments in favour of socialism were not based on any alleged rights. Instead, socialism was seen as historic destiny. Marx tried to show that crises within capitalism are recurrent and inevitable, and also capitalism digs its own grave by enlarging and empowering the working class.

Marx and Engels bypassed the issues of morality and justice by focusing on the real social forces allegedly leading to socialism. But neither the driving forces of history nor the supposed destiny of the working class make this socialist future just, or morally right. Even if Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism was broadly valid, and the working class was getting more agglomerated and powerful, then this would not itself show that socialism was morally superior to capitalism, by any suitable standards of ethics or justice.

The “dictatorship of the proletariat”

Following Marx, in his 1917 booklet The State and Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin saw “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as “the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of crushing the oppressors”.

But for Lenin this class dictatorship meant “an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags”. Note the qualification: this “democracy” was not for all. It meant the “suppression by force, i.e. exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people.

In practice, the Marxist dogma of working-class rule faces unavoidable problems that impel it towards totalitarianism rather than democracy. The Marxist notion of class domination removes rights from major segments of the population. Gone is the original Left defence of universal rights. Removing rights from a segment of the population – whether it is to suppress a social class, an ethnic group, or followers of a particular religion – undermines universal rights and liberties that apply to everyone.

Furthermore, the Marxist idea of the proletariat having class interests and a historic destiny, of which it is not necessarily aware, provides a rationale for a party to substitute for that class, claiming to act in its interests. It would act to suppress its opponents. But without countervailing power, any political monopoly slides toward totalitarianism. Dissent from the party line can be suppressed by claims that the dissenters are undermining the revolution.

Without political checks and balances, such dissenters have no effective legal protection. The removal of rights from the bourgeoisie or their agents provides the precedent and excuse for their widespread suppression – of deemed “agents” and abetters of the bourgeoisie, as well as of people of property.

Marxism in Russia and China

The first Marxist government was established in Russia in 1917, and it quickly evolved into a one-party state. Purges and terror ensued. But many on the Left supported the Soviet Regime. This was yet another wrong turning. The Left label became associated with totalitarianism, with minimal human rights, sham trials, mass executions, limited freedom, and arbitrary confiscations of property. The original meaning of Left was turned upside down.

Following Marx and Lenin, declared rights in Soviet Russia were not universal. The 1918 constitution distinguished legally between the rights of the workers and the rights of others. The state announced that it “deprives all individuals and groups of rights which could be utilized by them to the detriment of the socialist revolution.” A major problem here was that the criteria used to decide what was detrimental were inadequately specified, opening the door to arbitrary repression by the authorities. This is exactly what happened.

Under such a system, it is inevitable that law becomes an instrument of politics and government, instead of helping to keep government accountable and in check. Simple acts, such as the buying and selling of small items of property, can be deemed “detrimental to socialism” or “counter-revolutionary”. In the Soviet Union such offenses were punishable by death.

Instead of a means of defending rights, the law became an instrument of oppression by the Communist Party. Joseph Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture in 1928-1931, involving the forced deportations or deaths of millions of peasants, was carried out formally according to the letter of Soviet Law.

Of course, law has been abused as an instrument of politics in capitalist countries as well. But a wider distribution of power and ownership – which is feasible under capitalism but not under classical socialism – makes possible the development of countervailing power, which is essential to keep such abuses in check and to help defend the legal system from political manipulation. These countervailing mechanisms are much less effective when most property and economic power is concentrated in the hands of the state.

In many respects, Mao’s China was even worse than the Soviet Union. When Mao Zedong was in power, little effort was made to develop a legal system. Mao preferred that the Communist Party should rule without any legal restriction. This happened. The deadly consequences were the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.

More than ninety million deaths

The deaths and sufferings in Soviet Russia and Mao’s China were not accidental additions to a Marxist socialism that can be avoided in better circumstances. They are outcomes of Marxism’s doctrine of class struggle and its consequent termination of universal rights. They result from Marxism’s abandonment of key political principles of the Enlightenment

Published in 1999, the Black Book of Communism calculated the premature death toll under Communist regimes to be about 94 million. These estimated deaths include: 65 million in China under Mao, 20 million in the Soviet Union, and about two million in Cambodia under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Famines explain large numbers of these deaths, including an estimated toll of up to 45 million in the Great Leap Forward in China, and up to eight million in the Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933. Some critics say that this figure 94 million is too much, others that it is too conservative an estimate. Either way, the toll of death and misery under Communist regimes is enormous.

Capitalism too can be lethal. For example, the African slave trade caused many millions of early deaths. European conquests of the Americas caused about 100 million Native American deaths, through combinations of disease and genocide, particularly in South America. The British rule of India led to about 60 million deaths, many of them through massacres and famines.

But we need to compare democratic regimes, enjoying substantial human rights, with regimes where democracy and human rights are absent or limited. Meaningful democracy – where it is legal and possible for an opposition to organize and vote to remove the incumbent party or elite – has not existed under any Communist regime. Human rights have also been highly limited under Communism.

The evidence suggests that the reduction of death and misery from famine and war is best pursued by opposition to all forms of totalitarianism, whether capitalist or Communist. The chances of war, famine and premature death can be diminished through societies with democratic institutions and universal human rights. At least so far, these have been found in developed capitalism only.


Marxism – which advocates class dictatorship and the abolition of private property – cannot offer a secure foundation for democratic institutions and human rights. At least for the present, the best options for humanity are those forms of welfare-state capitalism that have been able to sustain such institutions and rights, while keeping extreme economic inequality in check. The task is to reform capitalism rather to follow Marxism.

For the Left in 1789, the Right were supporters of a hereditary elite and their oppressive state machine. Under Marxist regimes the elite ceased to be hereditary, but the state vastly increased its power. There is good reason to see both forms of absolutism as right-wing.

The primary struggle of the twenty-first century is not between private and public ownership, whatever their merits in different contexts. It is between liberty, rights and democracy on the one hand, and authoritarian nationalism on the other. It is the age-old struggle for universal human rights, rather than the regressive struggle of one nation, ethnicity, religion or class against another.



5 April 2017


This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018



Courtois, Stéphane, Werth, Nicolas, Panné, Jean-Louis, Packowski, Andrzej, Bartošek, and Margolin, Jean-Louis (1999) The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
Polan, Anthony J. (1984) Lenin and the End of Politics (London: Methuen).
Tawney, Richard H. (1921) The Acquisitive Society (London: Bell), quoted from p. 56.
Trotsky, Leon D. (1937) The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and where is it Going? (London: Faber and Faber).
April 5th, 2017 by