1980s >> 1986 >> no-987-november-1986

Leninism versus socialism

This year sees the seventieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In November (October according to the old Russian calendar) 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power and the myth of Russian socialism was born — a myth because at no time during the last seventy years has Russia been socialist nor has it made any advances towards that goal. On the contrary, since the revolution Russia has only developed capitalism. The mythology of Russian socialism can be traced back to the writings of Lenin. But it is important to realise that this is not a quibble over words: Lenin’s theory of “socialism” as a transitional society between capitalism and communism has proved to have disastrous consequences for the workers of the world.


One of the best academic books on Lenin is Neil Harding s two-volume Lenin’s Political Thought. Harding’s general conclusion in this work is that, far from being an opportunist. Lenin “was the most doctrinaire of the successful politicians of the twentieth century” (Vol.2. p.3). In at least one crucial respect, however, the facts do not support this conclusion. Harding claims that in 1917 Lenin made “no clear delineation” between socialism and communism (Vol.2. p. 172). But Lenin did write in The State and Revolution (August-September, 1917) of a “scientific distinction” between socialism and communism:


What is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the “first”, or lower, phase of communist society. Insofar as the means of production become common property, the word “communism” is also applicable here, providing we do not forget that this is not complete communism. (Lenin, Collected Works,Vol.25. p.471.)


The first sentence of this quote is simply untrue and Lenin probably knew it was. There is no evidence that Marx or Engels made such a distinction; in fact they used the words socialism and communism interchangeably to refer to the post-revolutionary society of common ownership of the means of production. It is true that in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) Marx wrote of a transition between a lower phase of communism and a higher phase of communism. Marx thought that, because of the low level of economic development (in 1875) individual consumption would have to be rationed in the first phase of communism, possibly by the use of labour-time vouchers (similar to those advocated by Robert Owen). But in the higher phase of communism, when the forces of production had developed sufficiently, the dictum would apply: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. It is important to realise, however, that in both phases of communism (or socialism) there would be no state or money economy. Lenin, on the other hand, said that socialism (or the first phase of communism) is a transitional society between capitalism and full communism, in which there is both a state and money economy. According to Lenin: “It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois right, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!” (Ibid.) But Lenin failed to see what this would involve. In effect, it was to become an apology for state capitalism.


Lenin’s The State and Revolution was derived from the theoretical analysis contained in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1915-16). Lenin’s theory of imperialism demonstrated to his satisfaction that the whole administrative structure of “socialism” had been developed during the epoch of finance or monopoly capitalism which, under the impact of the First World War. had become state-monopoly capitalism. He further claimed that state-monopoly capitalism “democratised” was socialism. As Lenin pointed out in his article The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It (1917):


For socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly. Or, in other words, socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly. (Lenin. Collected Works. Vol.25. p.358.)


Lenin’s model for “socialist” development was the German postal service. In The State and Revolution, he declared:


A witty German Social Democrat of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. (Ibid., p.426.)


And in Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, written one month before the Bolshevik seizure of power. Lenin said:


The big banks are the “state apparatus” which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single state bank, the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district, in every factory, will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.26. p. 106.)


Lenin’s position was contradictory. Although he often stressed that socialism in a single country was impossible, the possibility of achieving socialism within a single state is clearly laid out. And it is from Lenin, particularly his The State and Revolution, that the idea of socialism as a transitional society between capitalism and communism originates. But as well as being a distortion of Marx’s position there are also insoluble problems in theory and in practice.


In theory, the idea of a transitional society involves a misunderstanding of the state and a money economy. Money is a social relation. reflecting the private property basis of production and the fact that, however an economy is “planned “, there is still private or sectional appropriation. The state (whatever its form) is essentially a coercive machinery for maintaining the social relations of a powerful and privileged class against the interests of the dispossessed class. In other words, the state and its money economy perpetuate class-divided society.


In practice, the idea of a transitional society has led to confusion and disappointment. Since capital accumulation has continued (whether acknowledged as such or not), those governments which have followed the Leninist model have faced problems. How will they deal with the normal crises of capital accumulation? What happens if workers strike for more money? Will the unions be suppressed? But these questions are no longer academic. The history of those regimes which have adopted the Leninist model of state capital accumulation have shown themselves to be, if anything, more ruthless in their exploitation of the working class than their openly capitalist rivals. As a result, the name of socialism has been dragged through the mud. This is the legacy of Lenin. It is important to realise therefore that Lenin’s conception of “socialism” means state capitalism. This is, after all, what Lenin said it meant. The idea of “socialism” as a transitional society between capitalism and communism is nonsense in theory and an unmitigated disaster in practice. It has diverted working class attention away from the vital issue facing them: to understand why they must reject capitalism in all its guises, including the idea of a transitional society and opt for socialism — a moneyless, stateless system of society in which the world belongs to the workers.


Lew Higgins


Note: All emphases in quotations are in the originals.