1980s >> 1984 >> no-956-april-1984

Leninism v Democratic Socialism

At the end of the nineteenth century the peasantry accounted for eighty-five per cent of the total Russian population of one hundred and fifty million. The “revolutionary” activities of the most recent past had been confined to a group of intellectuals who believed in “going to the people”, that is to say mingling with the peasantry at large so as to spread their ideas. These Narodniks. as they were known, held that the revolutionary potential to overthrow the tyranny of Tsardom lay with the mass of peasants. This was understandable since at the time Russia, in terms of industrial development, was backward in comparison with the more highly developed Western economies, with their correspondingly large urban working class.

The Narodniks, as typified by the “People’s Will” group, believed in terrorism and teaching of anarchy as the means to revolution. They were responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. and the subsequent treatment of their members when caught did little to deter others from following the futile policy of violent minority action. In fact, six years later, Lenin’s brother Alexander was executed for complicity in a plot to assassinate Alexander III. under the auspices of the same organisation.

The “People’s Will” had been formed after a split in the Narodnik organisation “Land and Freedom”, which was set up in 1876 under the influence of the prominent anarchist Bakunin, who advocated such measures as the razing of capital cities and, when drinking, toasted “the destruction of public order and the unleashing of evil passions”.

Concurrent with the establishment, at the turn of the century, of large-scale Russian industry, there arose a movement known as the League of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class, whose number came to include one Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov. This Ulyanov, who became better known as Lenin, was a keen follower of Plekhanov, who had previously split from the “People’s Will” on the issue of individual terrorism. Plekhanov had founded the “Liberation of Labour” group, dedicated to rejection of the old Narodnik ideas in favour of using the incipient industrial working class as the agent of revolution. Through his association with Plekhanov, Lenin began to formulate an idea for a new party organisation using new tactics based on this growing proletariat. Arrested in 1895 for distributing agitational pamphlets, the subsequent period of exile gave him time to consolidate these ideas.

Professional revolutionaries 
Lenin made no secret of his desire to build an organisation of revolutionary leaders who would devote their abilities to imposing their will on the ignorant mass of porkers. The arrogance of this policy is clearly shown in the 1902 pamphlet ‘What is to he Done?’: “As I have stated repeatedly, by ‘wise men’ in connection with organisation, I mean professional revolutionaries”. [1]

On the question of “vanguardist” professionals. Marx and Engels had unequivocally stated some twenty years previously:

  When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry: the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic persons from the upper and lower middle classes. [2]

This compares interestingly with Lenin’s blatant leadership policy:

  The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness . . . The theory of Socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status, the founders of modern Scientific Socialism, Marx and Engels, belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. [3]

Nobody who claims to take a scientific view of history could deny that What is to be Done? was a reflection of the conditions of the day — conspiracy and violent minority action being a logical product of a non-democratic feudal system of society. But in fact Lenin did not abandon the policy of elitism even when the justification for it had disappeared. Fifteen years later he announced that if it were necessary for everybody to have developed intellectually to the level of desiring socialism, then we would have to wait five hundred years. [4] There is a wealth of evidence scattered throughout Lenin’s political career to show his contempt for the ability of the workers to understand socialism, and his conviction that they would have to be led to it by an elite of professionals. In 1917 a former colleague of Lenin’s described him as “a candidate for a European throne vacant for thirty years, the throne of Bakunin”. [5]

Lenin had never really departed from the policy advocated by Peter Tkachev, who some twenty-seven years earlier stated:

  A real revolution can only be brought about in one way: through the seizure of power by revolutionists . . .
The revolutionary minority, having freed the people from the yoke of fear and terror, provides an opportunity for the people to manifest their revolutionary destructive power. [6]

Views on the coming revolution
After the Second Party Congress of 1903 the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party split into two on the issue of whether the party should be constituted as a democratic mass party or as a small, centralised, disciplined elite. Tactical differences also developed between the “Bolsheviks” and “Mensheviks” (from the Russian words for majority and minority respectively). Both groups saw the necessity for Russia to undergo a preliminary capitalist revolution before socialism could even be considered—a view quite in accordance with the Marxian Materialist Conception of History. No one expressed this formulation more forcefully than Lenin, who wrote quite unambiguously that “Marxism has irrevocably broken with the Narodnik and anarchist gibberish that Russia for instance can bypass capitalist development, [7] and that . . . the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social economic relationships.” [8]

The Mensheviks maintained that the proletariat, the working class, had no hope of gaining political power for their own ends without the prior establishment of this “bourgeois-democratic” regime. Only under these circumstances, with workers meanwhile negotiating some interim reforms, could conditions develop under which the working class would be able to lake power for themselves in order to establish socialism.

The Mensheviks therefore postponed any direct revolutionary action to some remote unforeseeable future, and openly advocated support for the up-and-coming Russian capitalist class in its struggle for supremacy over the reigning autocracy. The Mensheviks were therefore the faction most closely to be associated with the “revisionist” tendency in the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party, as propounded by Eduard Bernstein. These members rejected conspiratorial organisation in favour of what was considered by the Bolsheviks to be a too-deterministic approach.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks took the attitude that, due to the weakness of the developing capitalist class in Russia at that time, their coming superiority as a class could only be effected if helped by an alliance between the proletariat and the numerically superior peasantry. Under this dictatorship of workers and peasants, the richer section of the peasantry could then be dispensed with, leaving the working class and the “semi-proletarian” element of the peasantry in control:

  The proletariat must carry through to completion the democratic revolution, by uniting itself to the mass of the peasantry, in order to crush by force the opposition of the autocracy and to paralyse the instability of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat must complete the Socialist revolution by uniting to itself the mass of semi-proletarian elements in the population, in order to break by force the opposition of the bourgeoisie and to paralyse the instability of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie. [9]

Dictatorship of the proletariat
It is significant that this peasant/worker alliance was not originally intended to constitute the “dictatorship of the proletariat” — a phrase used by Marx when he was optimistic about the establishment of socialism in the near future. He envisaged a situation where the workers would have taken democratic control but the forces of wealth production had not yet been sufficiently developed to allow free access. Hence the need for a democratic society with the proletariat in political control but not yet fully at the level where it would be possible to have access based on the principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs”. [10]

This idea of “dictatorship” was later used by Lenin to justify a “two-stage” theory of socialist development, made necessary by his (at first) unique interpretation of the events at the end of 1917. The Bolshevik idea was that there would follow, in the wake of their seizure of power, a series of revolutions in Western Europe, thereby consolidating the world revolution.

The third opinion on the debate over the nature of the coming revolution was provided by Leon Trotsky, who argued that the proletariat, having carried out the initial revolution, could scarcely be expected to relinquish state power afterwards. He held that the revolution would become “permanent” through the institution by the workers of nationalisation measures, while waiting for the rest of the European workers to take the lead from Russia’s good example. Originally, Lenin maintained that the peasants and European workers would have to support the revolution from the outset. Trotsky arguing on the other hand that their support would constitute the final phase of the revolution.

So, Lenin’s revolutionary horizon was at first no broader than a “dictatorship” of workers and peasants. This attitude was to change dramatically after the first, February, revolution of 1917. After his return in April. Lenin published his famous April Theses, one of which was that the worldwide socialist revolution had, in fact, begun. Most of Lenin’s own comrades were staggered by this interpretation, even to the extent that he was interrupted with cries of, “delerium, the delerium of a madman”, [11] and it was widely believed that he would come to his senses when he had time properly to assess the true situation.

What is to be done?
Leninist and Trotskyist organisations to this day attempt to discredit the use of the. admittedly limited, democratic institutions as a vehicle for social revolution. “Parliamentary Cretinism”, to use Marx’s term, is indeed doomed to failure — meaning the use of the capitalist institution to pass legislative reforms which are supposed to lead, ultimately, to a “fairer” society. However, the system of more-or-less democracy which goes with the Parliamentary institution can serve as a useful measure of the prerequisite for a successful revolution — working class consciousness.

Marx and Engels recognised the growing value of using suffrage as an expression of popular will. Marx wrote in 1880:

  . . . collective appropriation must be striven for by all means that are available to the proletariat. including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of fraud that it has been till now, into an instrument of emancipation. [12]

The out of date vanguardist methods of violent insurrection were finally laid to rest by Friedrich Engels at the end of the nineteenth century, when he wrote in his introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France 1848-1850,

  The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses . . . the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they must act. That much the history of the last fifty years has taught us. But so that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required . . . even in France the Socialists realise more and more that no durable success is possible unless they win over in advance the great mass of the people. . . . The slow work of propaganda and parliamentary activity are here also recognised as the next task of the party. [13]

Soviets and the state
The soviet, or council, was the institution that flourished in Russia at the beginning of the abortive 1905 revolution, in the absence of any legally-sanctioned representative body of political opinion. Obviously, the form of democratic representation used by the working class depends ultimately on the prevailing political and economic conditions at that time. However, present-day advocates of the soviet as a means to “workers’ control” are adamant that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield for its own purposes”; [14] this is the article of faith still propounded in the Trotskyist paper Socialist Worker.

  It was however the view of Marx and Engels, authors of the above passage, that it was necessary for their workers to take control of the state machinery before it could be used against the capitalist class. This , seeming paradox was resolved some years later when Engels clarified the specific point in a letter to Bernstein:

As to your former enquiry regarding the passage in the preface of the Manifesto. . . . It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administratively centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes. . . . [15]

The state is after all the executive body of the ruling class, even if run from top to bottom by members of the working class. The army and the police force, by virtue of their particularly unpleasant manifestations of repression and brutality, have come to be regarded by some as a force unto themselves, impermeable to socialist ideas. The fact remains, however, that the police and army are made up of workers who are forced to sell their ability to work in whichever way they can. The members of these repressive state institutions are no less susceptible to socialist ideas than is any other body of people.

A democratically-expressed majority is the only way to ensure that there will be a sufficiently large number of people aware of how society will need to be run and prepared to assert it. As Rosa Luxemburg said, with regard to the Bolshevik closure of an unfavourable Constituent Assembly:
. . . the remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammeled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people. [16]

P. G. Robinson

[1] What is to he Done?, p121 (Progress, Moscow 1978).
[2] Selected Correspondence — Marx and Engels, p307 (Progress 1975).
[3] Lenin, op.cit, p31.
[4] Ten Days that Shook the World, John Reed, p263 (Penguin).
[5] Quoted in The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. I. E.H. Carr, p90 (Pelican 1983).
[6] Quoted in D. Shub’s biography, Lenin, p26 (Pelican 1966).
[7] “Two Tactics in Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”. Lenin, p76 Selected Works (Progress Moscow 1977).
[8] ibid, p82.
[9] ibid, p147.
[10] Critique of the Gotha Programme, p247 (Pelican Marx Library 1974).
[11] Carr, op.cit, p90.
[12] “Introduction to the Programme of French Workers’ Party”. p247 (Pelican Marx Library 1974).
[13] Introduction to Marx’s “Class Struggles in Trance, 1848-1850“. p18 (Progress 1972).
[14] Communist Manifesto, Preface to 1872 edition. p2 (Peking 1970).
[15] Selected Correspondence — Marx and Engels, p345. (Progress Moscow 1975).
[16] The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg. p38 (Slienger, London 1977).