I recently discovered, to my own disappointment, that the International Socialist Organization maintains an officially Leninist posture. In the “Study Packet” literature, Paul D’Amato acknowledges the criticism of Lenin that exists on the Left, and then proceeds to commit the intellectual equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and humming ‘la la la’, a tactic long held dear by religious zealots and American politicians. He writes, “To the extent that critics are denouncing what is, in fact, a caricature of Lenin- that any vanguard party will be top down and autocratic-there’s little to be said.” If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s mindless dogmatism and personality cults, especially in my own ideological backyard, so to speak. Therefore, I think this is an interesting opportunity to explain what Leninism, or Bolshevism, is, and why it is in my view an ideology that is fundamentally at odds with the vast body of theoretical socialist scholarship of the last two centuries. There is an unfounded assumption in D’Amato’s claim that indictments of authoritarianism constitute a ‘caricature’ of Leninism which begs examination.
It is not at all uncommon to hear people say that the Russian revolution was betrayed when Stalin rose to power. Nearly every self proclaimed “socialist”, “libertarian socialist”, “anarchist”, “orthodox Marxist”, “Leninist”, “left Marxist”, and a good deal of mainstream liberals are willing to concede that the tyrannical bureaucracy that was the Stalinist Soviet Union represented the betrayal of socialism, or democratic control of production and allocation, in every conceivable way. The term state capitalism gets thrown around rather capriciously, and everyone goes home happy. It is a useful term, however, and we should understand what it means. Specifically, a state capitalist regime is one in which state officials usurp the role of the capitalist class, assuming ownership of the means of production, making all productive and allocative decisions, compelling workers to toil for a wage (necessarily a fraction, greater or smaller, of the value they produce), and privately profiting from the result. This is the situation that currently obtains in states like China, Cuba, and North Korea, and was most certainly the case in the former U.S.S.R. as well. What is apparently less agreed upon, and what I support, is the notion that Stalinism was not only an elaboration upon, but a natural result of, the apparatus established by Lenin and the Bolshevik party. I almost hesitate to cite noted linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, as he’s been cited quite enough, and I doubt another annotation from me will do much for his reputation, but his characteristically cogent analysis of the matter is of such relevance that I fear it cannot be avoided. He notes that the similarities of the state capitalist regimes in the former Soviet republics and Western-style capitalism, specifically the hierarchical arrangement of society, elite management of the state and economy, and the utter lack of robust or meaningful democratic institutions, account for the much touted ease with which Russia and Eastern Europe took to incorporation within the Western system after 1990. The only change, according to Chomsky, was that party officials had to renounce their positions to maintain holdings in the formerly state owned enterprises- nothing qualitative to speak of. Furthermore, the distinction made by Bolshevik apologists between this authoritarian state capitalism and Leninist ideology in fact constitutes a false dichotomy. Leninism represented an incipient stage in this development.
Bolshevism, or Leninism, is the theory that a “vanguard party” of professional revolutionaries, in whom class consciousness is most highly developed, should lead the socialist revolution, not for the purposes of propagandizing, fomenting voluntary organization or raising consciousness in the masses to theory and praxis, but specifically to assume the levers of state power and control them in the “interests of the working class”. We can already see that this assumes a class distinction a priori, with a so called “radical intelligentsia”, in the case of Russia in 1917, merely replacing the Tsarist bureaucracy and Cossack ranks. It couldn’t be more obvious that this arrangement is directly antithetical to any notion of democratic control of the workplace, as socialism has traditionally been understood to be. Labor was to be regimented and subservient to the doctrine of “democratic centralism” (yes, this is precisely the oxymoron you think it is), which is in fact nothing more than old fashioned top down control, the more starkly overt for its Orwellian appellation. In the aftermath of the popular and initially spontaneous Russian revolution of February 1917, workers organized themselves into Soviets, or workers councils, affiliated through federations and with delegates subject to instant recall. To this day such voluntary associations represent the fundamental model for revolutionary organization. In October of that same year, Lenin, Trotsky, and the militarized Bolshevik party began subjugating the soviets to the command of the Central Committee, rendering them utterly impotent as mechanisms of democratic control, and extirpating anarchists, left Marxists, and Mensheviks who held that the federated soviets would render the state apparatus irrelevant, and that voluntary associations of producers, consumers and communities of all sorts would preside over society’s affairs into the foreseeable future. In this sense these refugees from the soviets were more in line with Marx’s actual writings, wherein he predicted that socialized production would render the coercive state superfluous to the point that it would atrophy out of existence. Marx was explicitly anti-statist. Leninism, in contrast, was a statist, right-wing aberration in socialist thought, if not an outright cynical power grab, sexed up in Marxist rhetoric. All power to the soviets indeed…
This contradiction between Leninism and what workers all over early 20th century Europe were fighting for did not go unnoticed. Lenin quarreled publicly with many of his contemporaries over the content and implications of his ideas and the words that went back and forth are well documented. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who, along with Luxemburg, Pannekoek and others Lenin denounced as “infantile leftists”, correctly predicted the rise of a “new class” of bureaucrats as a result of Bolshevik victory in Russia. In a series of polemics against Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg denounced the “vanguard party” position, and emphasized that any revolutionary organization should be horizontal and actually composed of the working class to preempt a divergence of interests. According to Max Shachtman, a Marxist historian sympathetic to Bolshevism, Lenin responded thusly to similar criticism from a Menshevik opponent, “The basic idea of comrade Martov…is precisely a false “democratism”, the idea of the construction of the party from the bottom to the top. My idea, on the contrary, is “bureaucratic” in the sense that the party should be constructed from above down to the bottom, from the congress to the individual party organizations.” Another historian who has in hindsight been rather kind to Bolshevik ideology is E. H. Carr, and he quotes Lenin, in his November 3, 1917 “Draft Decree on Workers’ Control”, as asserting that delegates from the soviets were to be “answerable to the state for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property.” Later in 1917, Lenin states that “We passed from workers’ control to the creation of the Supreme Council of the National Economy” in order to “replace, absorb and supersede the machinery of workers’ control.” Finally, the coup de grace, as it were, Chomsky reports Lenin as stating that “Socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people.” Checkmate, Mr. D’Amato.
Usually, at this point, the apologists resort to making airy claims about “historical context”, and allude to the inordinate duress which the Russian movement was under at the time from the forces of reaction. It is true that the Russian Left was confronted on all sides by imperialist armies, but to intimate that this justified mimicry of the very oppressive system the Russian people were rebelling against is a complete non sequitur and a betrayal of the spirit of the February Revolution, which I will not even dignify with a response. Hoping my audience will grant me this one sentimentality, however, I will say that I believe people represent the most potent force for change when they are willfully informed and voluntarily resolute, flush with the realization that when organized anything is possible; not when they are stultified and subjugated by a despotism that claims to operate in their interest. This is a line as old as civilization, and I wonder whether our comrades at the I.S.O. have ever heard a saying that begins with “Fool me once…” Mine is not an anti-intellectual position; I submit that the role of intellectuals as polemicists, pamphleteers, analysts, organizers and disseminators of information is in fact a noble one. But erudition, like power, does not justify hierarchy. The merit and moral authority of a socialist vision originates in democracy; the former cannot precede the latter. So I ask, Mr. D’Amato, where is the “caricature”? The Revolution was betrayed in October, or haven’t you heard?
- W. Gimson 06/15/2010