Leninism in Power

Comments On Samuel Farber’s “Before Stalinism: The Rise And Fall Of Soviet Democracy”1

by J. David Edelstein

Leninism in power is still a relevant topic for democratic socialists for at least two related reasons. First, we should understand what went wrong, and why, in the early years following the Russian revolution. With this understanding we may avoid falling into a repetition of the major errors of the Leninist party.

Second, even today many left-wing socialists consider themselves to be “Leninists.” They may make mild, or even strong criticisms of some of the undemocratic practices in the Soviet Union under Lenin. However, they tend to view more comprehensive criticisms of Leninism in power as an attack on the October revolution itself, in my view mistakenly. Samuel Farber’s Before Stalinism is useful for its description of the situation in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and its sophisticated critique of Leninism in power from a socialist perspective.

It is tempting to some modern-day socialists to put themselves in the boots of the Bolsheviks, and, in effect, re-fight the ditch-by-ditch battles of 1917-1923 while identifying with the Bolsheviks in their often extreme situations. This is not necessarily “wrong”, but a more fruitful approach is to use our hindsight to learn from this — to generalize, to generate some theoretical insights.

The most important generalization, in my view, is that once on the slippery slope of major limitations on workers’ and people’s democracy, an evolutionary return to workers’ democracy is very unlikely. This is largely because the wielders of power — the presumably “vanguard” party, the governmental administration, and the industrial bureaucrats — view themselves as indispensable, and soon begin to exercise power in their own behalf. It doesn’t take all that long before the socialist idealists among them no longer predominate, and the ruling group becomes the core of a new ruling class.

In other words, the fundamental basis of workers’ power, in a socialist state, is the ACTIVE EXERCISE OF THAT POWER by the workers at all levels of society, from the workplace and community to the national government. But such power cannot be exercised directly, by individuals or small groups of workers, except with respect to their immediate job situations. What is required is a number of structures through which this power can be exercised, such as factory committees and unions, and some forms of local and national democratic, representative government. While democratic structures (“institutions”) cannot guarantee workers’ democracy, they are indispensable, as are civil rights and liberties.

To say this in another way, the “property form” of nationalized major industries and banks is not enough. We have learned that such nationalization can also be the basis for a new class ruling over the working class, as I would characterize the situation in the former Soviet and Eastern European societies, and in present-day China. Lenin was wrong, in arguing thus for one-man management in industry at the 1920 Congress of the Communist Party:

“[T]he victorious proletariat has abolished property, has completely annulled it — and THEREIN lies its domination as a class. The prime thing is the question of property. As soon as the question of property was settled practically, the domination of the class was assured” (emphasis in original) (Farber, p. 74).

Lenin expressed a similar idea as early as 1918. In reply to Martov’s (Menshevik Internationalist) argument that the unions’ freedom of organization should be protected, and his denunciation of Lenin’s call for piecework, etc., in April 1918, Lenin stated: “This view….is utterly wrong, because the defense of the workers’ interests was the task of the unions under capitalism, but since power has passed to the hands of the proletariat, the state itself, in its essence the workers’ state, defends the workers’ interests” (V. N. Brovkin, The Mensheviks After October, Cornell University Press, 1987, p. 86).

The application of this approach by Lenin is manifest in this example of repression, in Bolshevik trade union policy:

“[T]he Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party (27 March-2 April 1922), the last at which Lenin actively participated, …resolved that the secretaries and chairmen of the central committees of the unions must be party members of long standing, i.e. since before the revolution……Furthermore, the Congress decided that party members could be coopted rather than elected to union office” (Farber, p.87)

The general idea of the inherent benevolence and primacy of state control in an allegedly workers’ state, along with the justification for the dictatorship of the proletariat being exercised through the dictatorship of the party (to be discussed below), affected much more than the developments in the Soviet Union; it remained the dominant theme of “Marxism-Leninism” throughout the world until at least 1990, and in some countries through today.

What I found of the greatest value in Before Stalinism is the specifics on the degree and types of repression by the party in power, even after the end of the civil war in 1921. After the Bolsheviks had lost the support of the majority of the people, and of the working class in particular, they hung on to power. The power of the factory committees, the unions, and the soviets was lost to the Bolshevik party. Arrested persons did not have the right of habeas corpus, nor did they have the right to choose their own lawyers. Punishment could be used against people (with Lenin’s endorsement) who were not even suspected of having been actually involved in carrying out, or helping to carry out, any specific acts against the revolutionary government. Instead, what made these people victims of punishment was that they were thought to share with the possible suspects a common political ideology, party or class membership, or even ethnicity (see Farber, p.120).

Farber’s view is that “coercion through intimidation” in revolution may be justified if used defensively, as a limited last resort, in response to specific situations, and consistent with the goals of the revolution (pp. 113-14). Also, this cannot be a blanket endorsement of anything-goes in repression. And the presumed “need” for repression may result from, or be compounded by, widespread resistance due to arbitrary or high-handed treatment of sections of the population, for example of the peasantry [to be discussed below].

Another contributing factor to the repression was what Farber called the “extreme moral relativism” of mainstream Bolshevist thought, which was “resistant to the establishment of general criteria….concerning what were permissible and impermissible means of repression”. For example, in December 1917, before the start of the civil war, Lenin “suggested, as one of the possible ways of dealing with ‘the rich, the rogues and the idlers,’ that ‘one out of every ten idlers will be shot on the spot’ ” (pp. 114-5). I have found the phrase “shot on the spot” in several actual directives by Lenin and in governmental decrees, along with the injunction that such terror against categories of people be carried out “mercilessly” (e.g. Farber pp. 122-3).2

The more extreme forms of repression were conducted by the Cheka , which had great latitude in exercising its semi-independent powers. The Cheka engaged in mass, indiscriminate hostage-taking and executions, as a way to intimidate the population. This was clearly a matter of established party policy, although the leadership of the Cheka was quite extreme and its actions were sometimes out of control.

Farber states that “by the middle of 1919, there were more than 13,000 hostages in Cheka prisons. Throughout the Civil War hostages were taken in hundreds and thousands. In Nizhnii Novgorod, for example, the local Cheka bulletin published a list of 41 persons shot and reported the taking of 700 hostages in that city in one day alone” (p. 121).

The Bolsheviks’ use of mass terror against the peasantry, beginning in 1918, followed their attempt under War Communism to ban petty trade, and to substitute instead the forcible requisitioning of grain through what Farber called “administrative lawlessness.” While Farber notes that historians have disagreed on the matter, he suggests that the Bolsheviks’ harsh policy was an unnecessary, ideologically-driven error contributing to widespread peasant revolts and a broadening of the civil war (pp. 49-50). Lenin essentially viewed the peasants as second-class citizens, and this was exemplified by the provision of the new constitution under which an urban worker’s vote was worth several times that of a peasant’s.

The Bolsheviks’ problems with the peasantry were compounded by the party’s total lack of organization in most of the countryside even months after the October revolution. Farber suggests that only an alliance with a peasant party could have filled this vacuum.

Brovkin and Farber have suggested that the repression of other socialist parties, especially the Mensheviks, was a response to their growing popular support among the urban working class. If the Bolsheviks had not harassed these parties, or finally made them illegal, they would have assumed majority status in many — some historians say most — urban soviets.

Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1985), which is generally sympathetic to Lenin, describes the post-civil war situation in the Soviet Union (from 1921) thus: “Soviet democracy, born of the upsurge of the masses and the Bolshevik victory, had, as a result of defeats and isolation, finally ceased to exist” (p. 231) (It had certainly been severely restricted earlier.) Furthermore, with the virtual banning of factions at a conference of the Bolshevik party, “Those mechanisms of control and criticism, serving as antidotes to the features of authoritarianism that were already present in Party life, suffered in March 1921 a definitive and maiming blow” (p. 299). Even many modern Leninists would call the banning of factions in the party a “mistake.”

In justification for the Bolshevik party’s remaining in power after having lost popular support, Leninists generally argue that the Bolsheviks had no other option than to create a one-party state to defend the revolution because objective conditions made it impossible for the working class to remain active and mobilized, and this was the prerequisite for continued Soviet rule. The nature and extent of the repression accompanying this one-party dictatorship — Farber’s most useful contribution to the discussion, from my perspective — is neglected, in this line of argument. Repression, if mentioned at all, becomes an abstraction which one argues about theoretically.

Some have suggested that Lenin’s 1919 statement, “Yes, the dictatorship of one party!” must be considered in the light of the Bolshevik’s difficult circumstances, and not as having some continuity with Lenin’s previous perspective (Farber, p. 28). Two points here: First, and most important, it is clear that Trotsky and other Bolsheviks while in power did not shrink from the general, theoretical acceptance of a one-party dictatorship as the vehicle for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and indeed proclaimed it while Lenin was still fully capable of contradicting them (democracy and bourgeois democracy often being confused in the process).

Second, Hal Draper has shown that Kautsky and Plekhanov, leading Marxists who began writing before Lenin, and Lenin himself, misconstrued Marx’s concept of “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and accepted the idea that this would be through the dictatorship of the party.3 Lenin may have at times formulated things differently, but seems never to have explicitly rejected this idea, and to have returned to it after the Russian revolution. In addition, his approach to a workers’ state was typically anti-institutional. For example, he stated in 1906 concerning the “dictatorship of the revolutionary people:”

“The scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force” (Draper, p.90).

Draper commented , “This definition of ‘dictatorship’ was going to be held and expounded by Lenin for a long time…..”

Lenin also stated that the dictatorship of the revolutionary people “is exercised, not by the whole people, but by the revolutionary people who, however, do not shun the whole people…..” Draper comments that the category “revolutionary people” “obviously stands for the revolutionary party” (Draper, p. 92).

What can one make of all this, in terms of what actually happened to the Russian revolution? Farber sums up in part:

“It was in the context of the Bolsheviks’ general tendency to have a relatively narrow social base, combined with the serious economic difficulties and sharply declining support confronting them in early 1918, that certain democratically flawed PREDISPOSITIONS of mainstream Bolshevism degenerated into an outright indifference if not hostility to democracy. In particular, one specific ‘flaw’ of the Leninist view of democracy became quite decisive, and considerably facilitated the subsequent evolution to a clear anti-democratic position. I am referring to the ambiguous status of majority rule in the political theory of the Bolshevik mainstream, as compared for example with the views of Rosa Luxemburg on the matter” (p.212; emphasis in original).

Farber argues that a coalition government which included all socialist parties committed to soviet legality was a possible alternative to the one-party dictatorship. The stance of the center-Left Mensheviks seemed compatible with this. By their December 1918 party conference the Menshevik majority had “defined what might be called their own ‘new course.’ In its essentials, it consisted of recognition of soviet power; withdrawal of the demand for the reconvocation of the Constituent Assembly from the immediate practical agenda; condemnation of the foreign intervention and of ‘restorationist’ governments; and a revision of the concept of the bourgeois revolution. Bit by bit, this new course crystallized into a doctrine of loyal, legal opposition to the Bolshevik regime within the system of soviets” (Brovkin, p. 288).

Farber suggests that, to begin with, all political parties and groups willing to accept the Soviet government could have been legalized and allowed to run slates in elections, and other aspects of repression lifted, no later than 1922 (pp. 205-208). If the electoral strength of the social democratic and populist parties gained greatly, the Bolsheviks could have then entered into negotiations with them, which might have led to power-sharing or — if necessary — the Bolsheviks leaving the government altogether. Farber presented it as “a bold policy and a gamble.” But at least it was a democratic gamble.

The strategy of such a coalition would have been no more of a gamble than holding on to power as a minority by dictatorial means, but might have bought time with the possibility of salvaging something for the revolutionary socialist movement — at the very least its credibility as a proponent of workers’ democracy.

Yes, a socialist democracy was not sustainable for very long in Russia without a socialist revolution in Western Europe, as modern Leninists often point out. But no options to a one-party dictatorship? This dictatorship was bad enough in itself under Lenin, and evolved rather quickly into Stalinism. No options to a one-party dictatorship OVER the working class and peasantry? The world is still paying the price for the degeneration of the Bolshevik socialist party, the particular way in which the revolution degenerated, and the discrediting of the very idea of socialism. Would a majority coalition with the other socialist parties — let us assume resulting in an eventual restoration of capitalism after various struggles — have been worse?

Whatever the pitfalls of such speculation, the time is long overdue for socialists to clearly separate themselves from the idea of a one-party dictatorship, from its historical “Soviet” manifestation, and — since the historical Lenin was so intimately related to these — from “Leninism.” A failure to follow through with the latter, because of the real or alleged insights one may gain from some of Lenin’s ideas, shows a failure to appreciate a major historical catastrophe. How much confidence can one have in those who underestimate or rationalize still-relevant “mistakes” of historic proportions, which might in some form be repeated?

Farber’s Before Stalinism is vastly richer in detail and more nuanced than my comments here, and shows many instances where leading Bolsheviks tried to change or moderate some of the repressive features of the regime (usually with little success). It is also a critique from the standpoint of revolutionary socialism. It is the best single source I know of on Leninism in power. I have some disagreements with Before Stalinism, but they have little relevance to the above discussion.

1 Verso, 1990 paperback. Capitalized words in the text represent italics.

2 Another feature of Lenin’s thought which affected his views on repression was his uncritical identification with the Jacobins, and their use of terror in the French revolution. Marxist critics of the Jacobins generally characterize their use of terror as an extreme, futile and bloody attempt to survive a historically untenable situation through utopian acts of pure will (see Farber, pp. 115-7, 178). Trotsky criticized Lenin’s self-identification as a Jacobin in his hard-to-find pamphlet, Our Political Tasks, published in 1904, but he participated in, and never repudiated, the Bolsheviks’ terror.

3 See Hal Draper, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin, Monthly Review Press, 1987, especially Ch. 4.