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Lenin and the State

In one of the many disputes between revolutionaries in Russia before 1917, Trotsky, before he himself became a Bolshevik, likened Lenin to Robespierre, a comparison which was to be borne out after the October Revolution. Trotsky, as leader of the Red Army, became the potential Bonaparte in the eyes of the Bolshevik Party bureaucrats.

The similarities between the French and Russian revolutions have not escaped anti-Marxist writers. For example, Carew Hunt in his book The Theory and Practice of Communism comments:

    "We find such men as Robespierre and St. Just using the same arguments to defend their actions as Lenin and Stalin were to employ a century and a quarter later."

In writing this, Carew Hunt thought he was making a profound criticism of Socialism. In actual fact, it is of no great surprise to Socialists that the ideologies of the two revolutions should be similar, since in both feudalism was swept away and political power was captured by a group determined to industrialize the country. The Bolsheviks, despite their socialist pretensions, could do no more than carry out the same function as the French bourgeoisie had done. in the absence of such a class in Russia.

There is, in fact, a striking resemblance between the ideas of Lenin and of the 18th century French philosopher, J. J. Rousseau. Rousseau's central idea was the "general will", that is the true interest of the entire people. The general will was not necessarily the will of the majority, but incorporated the will of the whole people, whether they recognised it or not, and was represented by an impersonal entity, the State, which was entitled to use violence if necessary in order to force the people to be free, if they refused to recognise the general will. Coercion was not really coercion, since it was carried out in the best interest of the coerced.

The idea was taken up by the Jacobins, the extreme revolutionary group which seized power in 1792. Although previously they had urged popular violence, they now found it used against them and had to justify the use of repression. They decided that, although the people were naturally good, they were not dealing with the people in their natural state, but as they had been corrupted by the ancien régime.  The true interest of the people was represented by the Robespierrist Jacobins, if only the people were enlightened enough to recognise it.

For "the people", Lenin substituted "the proletariat", which was hardly appropriate since 90 per cent of Russians were peasants. However, this did not worry Lenin since he decided the working class was incapable of progressing beyond a trade-union consciousness and that the revolution would have to be carried out in its name by an élite of professional revolutionaries, the "vanguard party". Once this had been accepted, there was nothing left of Marx's statement that "the emancipation of the working class itself", as some of Lenin's opponents pointed out at the time.

It is, of course, quite legitimate to say that the socialist party represents the true interest of the working class; Marx had said the party represents "the most advanced and resolute section of the working class". Such a statement is a tautology as long as the mass of workers accept capitalism. But Lenin went much further than this. In his State and Revolution, written during 1917, he declared that the Party must seize power by force and hold on even in the face of resistance from the workers it claims to represent. In other words, "dictatorship of the proletariat" meant little more than the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party.

And so it was done. The Bolsheviks captured power in October 1917. When, in January 1918, an election was held for a Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks found themselves in a minority and reacted by using troops to disperse the Assembly. When workers showed their hostility to the régime, the Bolsheviks had no hesitation in using the utmost brutality to suppress them, as at Kronstadt in 1921.

It is perfectly clear that Lenin's ideas are of no more relevance for the task of achieving Socialism than are Rousseau's, Rousseau's "general will" meant little more than the will of the leaders. Lenin's "proletarian dictatorship" meant rule by a clique of Party members. Both were ideologies used for the triumph of capitalism in different historical circumstances.

B.K. McNeeney