Monday, 14 July 2008

Lenin and Politics

The essay below I wrote in early 1990. I wish I had been much more aware of libertarian socialist/anarchist critiques of Bolshevism then, and I would be more wary now of saying Western socialism can cope with more bureaucracy. Plus it understates my own feelings about how far the powers-that-be would go to stop a democratic socialist government in the West taking power and implementing its programme. Having said that, there is a lot in it I still agree with...even more so now!

PS Sorry for all the footnotes...

“Lenin was a political genius who despised and distrusted politics.”

Lenin was undoubtedly a political genius in that he was able to seize a fleeting opportunity during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and gain power for the Bolsheviks. He organised a successful coup d’etat and let the peasantry “do the work of the proletarian revolution.” [1] He was distrustful of politics, however, in the way that many avowedly Marxist political parties throughout Europe in the early Twentieth Century were developing. He was particularly concerned about the German Social Democrats, who through theoreticians like Eduard Bernstein and politicians like Karl Kautsky, had “revised” Marxism [2], so that the SPD could declare that parliamentary politics, rather than violent insurrection, could bring about socialism. Lenin’s disillusion with many European Marxists was heightened when the SPD and other socialist parties failed to opposed the First World War [3], and when the avowedly revolutionary Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries supported the Provisional Government in Russia during 1917 [4]. In State and Revolution Lenin wanted to show why parliamentary politics was a dead-end for Marxists, due to the nature of contemporary capitalist states and democracies.

Lenin disagrees strongly with those Marxists who believe the state is “above” class conflict: it is, he says, “a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” [5] In capitalist society, “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power”: Lenin sees the state as primarily a coercive force. [6] He adds that “Bourgeois states are the most varied in form, but their essence is the same: all these states…in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” [7] Lenin concludes, through his interpretation of Marx and Engels, that “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution.” [8] Lenin is aware, however, of some of the writings of Marx and Engels that suggest that peaceful change is possible, and hence “revisions” have got an excuse to claim that parliamentary politics is what socialists should concentrate upon. [9]

Lenin’s main objection is based upon what he sees as major changes to capitalism since the era of Marx and Engels. Lenin believes that the state has changed due to changes in capitalism: “Imperialism- the era of bank capital…gigantic capitalist monopolies…the development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism- has clearly shown an extraordinary strengthening of the ‘state machine’ and an unprecedented growth in its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with the intensification of repressive measures against the proletariat both in the monarchical and…the freest, republican countries.” [10] To quote Bukharin, from whom Lenin got many of his ideas about Imperialism: “In former times parliament served as an arena for the struggle amongst various factions of the ruling group…Finance capital has consolidated almost all of their varieties into one ‘solid reactionary mass’ united in many centralised organisations. ‘Democratic’ and ‘liberal’ sentiments are replaced by open monarchist tendencies.” [11]

These changes means, says Lenin, that those “petit-bourgeois democrats” who believe that socialism would arrive with “the peaceful submission of the minority to the majority which has become aware of its aims” causes “in practice…the betrayal of the interests of the working class…”[12] The apparently democratic features of capitalist society, in fact, help the capitalists. Lenin cites Engels as being both “most explicit in calling for universal suffrage an instrument of bourgeois rule”, [13] and believing that “In a democratic republic…’wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely’, first, by means of the ‘direct corruption of officials…; secondly, by means of an ‘alliance of the government and the Stock Exchange’…”[14] The illusion of power that parliamentary government can control capitalism is, says Lenin, most powerful under a democratic republic and that is why it “is the best possible shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell…it establishes power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.” [15] As a result “the servile social democrats…acted the role of pliant accomplices of the imperialist state.”[16]

Lenin also criticised parliamentary politics on the grounds that it did not allow meaningful democratic participation on politics, He observes that “in the ordinary course of events, the majority of the population is disbarred from participation in public and political life” [17], and “If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy…we see restriction after restriction upon democracy…in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.” [18]

If Lenin saw parliamentary politics as ineffectual in changing the nature of capitalism and alienating to the mass of people, how did he see the political system changing after a socialist revolution? Lenin saw the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of a future socialist society, and believed that the soviets that emerged in Russia during 1917 could become latter-day versions of the commune. Lenin believed that “The commune…replaced the smashed state machine ‘only’ by fuller democracy” [19]- “democracy” which saw the participation of the whole population in the running of the functions previously carried out by the state. Lenin notes that “The first decree of the Commune…was the suppression of the standing army, and its replacement by the armed people…”[20] Since Lenin saw armed force as the mainstay of all states, all authority in the commune/soviet would flow from this. Lenin saw mass participation as the answer to the threat of a bureaucracy emerging as a result of the administration needed during the “first stage” of communism. The rationalisation of capitalism during the Imperialist stage would help this process considerably: “the great majority of the functions of the old ‘state power’ have become so simplified and can be reduced to such exceedingly simple operation…that they can be easily performed by ever literate person…and…these functions can…be stripped of every shadow of privilege.” [21] In time there would be a “gradual ‘withering away’ of all bureaucracy, to the gradual creation of an order…under which the functions of control and accounting, becoming more and more simple, will be performed by each in turn…and will finally die out as the special functions of a special section of the population.” [22]

Despite opposing the parliamentary system, Lenin saw the possibility of mass participation in the running of the country: “The way out of parliamentarianism is not…the abolition of representative institutions and the elective principles, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into ‘working’ bodies.” [23] Like Marx, Lenin saw such institutions as being a “a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.” [24] The representatives are delegates of their constituents and “have to work…execute their own laws, have themselves to test the results achieved in reality, and to account directly to their constituents.” [25]

Lenin’s belief that the commune can create freedom via direct participation in democracy starts to put into doubt by his plans for the economy under socialism. He declares that “Until the ‘higher’ stage of communism arrives…socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labour and the measure of consumption…” [26] Also, “All citizens become employees and workers of a single country-wide state ‘syndicate’. All that is required is that they should work equally, do their proper share of the work, and get equal pay.” [27] Lenin believes that “Marx was a centralist.” [28]

Before examining the anti-democratic and arguably “anti-political” tendencies of Lenin’s post-revolutionary vision, it is worth considering two major flaws in Lenin’s critique of capitalist political systems. Firstly, his discussions of the capitalist state depended a lot upon Marx and Engels; the problem was that their “discussions of specific and concrete social institutions was concerned almost exclusively with moments, of rupture, destruction and reconstruction in European history- the years 1789, 1848 and 1871 being the recurrent foci. Lenin was transmitted no knowledge at all of the realities of stability of the complex networks if institutions and practices which constituted the body of western society.” [29] Also “Marx wrote in a period where there was a consensus…about the impossibility of a pluralistic and consensual politics.”[30] Between that period and 1914 there was an increase throughout Europe in the scope of liberal democracy, and Polan points out that “Even…minimum liberalization and democratisation implies the possibility of evolution towards something more substantial.” [31] Radicals like Lenin “were confronted with a quite unfamiliar world of ‘competitive open’ politics, in which much of their established thought and practice became simply irrelevant.” [32]

The second major flaw was that Lenin was Russian; Czarist Russia was probably the most politically repressive and socio-economically backward country in Europe. Indeed, Russia was barely capitalist. [33] Lenin’s distrust of the social democratic belief that socialism could come through parliamentary legislation was because in Russia “there existed no possible connection between the state and freedom, there was only a profound antagonism,” [34] while in much of Europe “the connection between the state and freedom was law.” [35] Similarly, his prejudice towards the “bourgeois state machine” which “would resist, sabotage and destroy social democratic movements”, [36] stemmed from the common Russian belief “that civil servants were not just corruptible, but that public administration was synonymous with corruption…” [37] Lenin believed from Russian experience that freedom under socialism “demanded a reduction in the tasks and responsibilities of the state.” [38] Yet this could not apply to Western socialism, which saw the introduction of measures essential for building socialism in advanced complex societies, such as state economic intervention and welfare provision, needing a large bureaucracy. [39] Lenin’s belief that direct participation could end the alienation of people from “politics” floundered in Russia, since most of the population had no experience of even the most minimal kind of participation, such as voting for parliament. As a result of “the comparatively low educational…attainments of the average Russian worker” [40], and a realisation that “The peasantry…was incapable of political initiative”, [41] Lenin had to, post-revolution, support “the swift re-introduction of specialists and one-man management” [42] and ask the soviets “to separate ‘the necessary, useful preparation of the masses for executing a certain measure and checking upon its execution…from the actual execution itself’.” [43] According to those on the left of the Bolsheviks “Bureaucracy was…the inevitable result of the…move way from proletarian self-activity.” [44]

A centralised economic system, as Lenin envisaged, would perhaps inevitably led to the Soviet Union coming under the control of a bureaucracy. However, Lenin’s state structure, combined with his distrust of politics, meant that a bureaucratic dictatorship was inevitable. The bureaucracy would arise to administer state functions: “Administration concerns the carrying out of an already determined policy”, says Polan, while “politics involves the discussion and negotiation of such policies.” [45] The soviets, however, could not offer “politics”, Polan says; for “If the ‘parliamentarians’ of the soviet system have to ‘execute their own laws’…we are talking about the same people as…administrators and bureaucrats.” [46] Also “The elected deputies…have to make the laws, carry them out and criticize them”[47] in a state which allows “no distances…spaces…appeals…checks…balances…processes
…delays…interrogations, and above all, no distribution of power.” [48] The system “demands…for Lenin’s political structure to work…an absence of politics.” [49] In short, “Lenin summarily overthrows any…claim he might have had of treating bureaucratisation as a serious problem.” [50] Lenin believed in practice that the “answer ‘to…bureaucracy was to fall back on the more advanced workers, on the proletarian elite, or, rather, on the Party.’” [51] Students of bureaucracy, such as Weber, would know that “this was…to make the cure even worse than the disease.” [52]

Lenin by 1917 denied “the very existence of problematic political ideas within the bulk of the working class.” [53] He saw the politics of other socialists being purely “private self-interest made public.” [54] This allowed Lenin “to abolish any possible distance between the gross economic position of an individual and his motivations”; [55] hence “there can be no genuine differences of opinion in political life” [56], pushing “to the limit the possibilities of economic reductionism that Marxism might contain.” [57] With all people in the same economic position, working for the state, there could be no genuine disagreements over ends in the Bolshevik system, according to this logic. As a result, all political oppositions to the Bolsheviks, whether or not socialist, could be justifiably eliminated. Under Lenin’s system “Politically, the people were abolished”, [58] and bureaucratic administration ruled supreme.

To conclude, it can be said that Lenin’s distrust of politics which was inappropriate to Russia in 1917, and the elimination of socialist groups and ideas that opposed him, such as the Kronstadt sailors [59], made his genius in making Russia socialist ultimately flawed. If he had accepted that social democracy and “revisionist” forms of Marxism were appropriate for Western parliamentary democracy, socialist regimes may have come to power in the years following 1917 which would have allowed a socialist transformation of advanced industrial societies, and saved the USSR from backwardness and isolation. Instead, Lenin’s belief that his model was appropriate to all countries, combined with his intolerance and suspicion of parliamentary politics, meant him exporting his model to Europe via the newly formed communist parties of the time. This led to the left either being split [60] or advocating socialism totally inappropriate to Western countries [61]. In time this led to the Soviet Union becoming an isolated bureaucratic monstrosity, and socialism in Europe being unable to find a viable alternative to capitalism, while being tainted through association with Soviet socialism, Lenin’s distrust of “politics” could be said to have put back socialism in Europe so far that to call him a political “genius” is rather ironical.


[1] G. Lichtheim, (1971) Marxism, pp.332-333
[2] V.I. Lenin, (1964) “The State and Revolution” in V.I. Lenin Collected Works, Volume 25, eds. S.Aspreyan and J. Riordan, p.386
[3] J. Callaghan, (1987) The Far Left in British Politics, p.1
[4] Lenin, op cit, p.393
[5] ibid, p.387
[6] ibid, p.389
[7] ibid, p.413
[8] ibid, p.400
[9] ibid, p.415
[10] ibid, p.410
[11] N. Harding, (1981) Lenin’s Political Thought, Volume 2, p.96
[12] Lenin, op cit, p.404
[13] ibid, p.393
[14] ibid, p.392
[15] ibid, p.393
[16] Harding, op cit, p.115
[17] Lenin, op cit, p.460
[18] Ibid, p.460-461
[19] Ibid, p.419
[20] Ibid, p.418
[21] Ibid, p.421
[22] Ibid, p.426
[23] Ibid, p.423
[24] Ibid, p.423
[25] Ibid, p.424
[26] Ibid, p.470
[27] Ibid, p.473
[28] Ibid, p.429
[29} A. Polan, (1984) Lenin and the end of politics, p.154
[30] Ibid, p.174
[31] Ibid, p.175
[32] Ibid, p.174
[33] Callaghan, op cit, p.3
[34] Polan, op cit, p.161
[35] Ibid, p.161
[36] Ibid, p.58
[37] Ibid, p.163
[38] Ibid, p.67
[39] Ibid, p.67
[40] Harding, op cit, p.126
[41] Ibid, p.212
[42] Ibid, p.126
[43] Ibid, p.191
[44] Ibid, p.265
[45] Polan, op cit, p.77
[46] Ibid, p.80
[47] Ibid, p.81
[48] Ibid, p.129
[49] Ibid, p.129
[50] Ibid, p.81
[51] Ibid, p.68
[52] Ibid, p.68
[53] Ibid, p.171
[54] Ibid, p.175
[55] Ibid, p.175
[56] Ibid, p.176
[57] Ibid, p.176
[58] Ibid, p.78
[59] Harding, op cit, p.272
[60] Callaghan, op cit, pp.3-4
[61] Ibid, p.4

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