US and World Politics

Leninism and the Revolutionary Party

Throwing out Lenin with the revolutionary bathwater

A Review by John Blackburn

Chris Hedges gave a talk on June 28, 2019 at the Left Forum in New York City titled “The Dilemma of Vladimir Lenin”1 condemning Lenin and his legacy for the world revolutionary movement. This is a review of that talk.

Lenin’s State and Revolution includes polemics against all of the idealist left currents including anarchists who did not understand the nature of the state in general and the bourgeoisie state in particular and therefore why a dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary for the triumph of the socialist revolution. Hedges fails to recognize that Lenin’s views in this pamphlet are directly derived from those of Marx and Engels. This aspect of Marxism is often sidelined but to Marx and Engels it was as fundamental to them as their materialist philosophy, their analysis of capitalism and the class struggle. Lenin starts by pointing out that ignoring their position on the nature of the state was a retreat from the revolutionary nature of Marxism. The first references to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” are to be found in the Communist Manifesto.

Our meaning of the term dictatorship of the proletariat is a Marxist term that is widely misunderstood and does not mean a police state or some other repressive regime. This society is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie even the so-called democracies. They control not only the world economy but the organizations of the state apparatus as well as the ideology that is imparted in the education system, the mass media and to all of the cultural institutions. The aim is controlling how we all think and act and getting us to believe that “This is the best of all possible worlds.” In the end the police and armed forces are there to contain and eradicate any rebellion.

The dictatorship of the proletariat means the opposite. In a socialist society the economy will be organized and controlled by the workforce itself through democratically elected structures to produce their material needs. The views that will permeate education and culture will promote the internationalist and egalitarian outlook that is in the interest of the working class and its allies.

The courts and public institutions will be to serve, protect and promote the welfare of working people. And as the overthrown bourgeoisie are unlikely to accept these conditions, the working class will have to be organized and trained to defend itself and its achievements. This will involve the creation of an apparatus and militias that should repress right wing reaction while protecting the gains of the revolution. This is not necessarily a political dictatorship. The eradication of capitalist property relations and therefore the bourgeoisie are the preconditions for socialism.

In the hands of the Stalinists, as Trotsky predicted, the bourgeois property relations would return to the Soviet Union and the nation’s wealth stolen by a handful of bureaucrats. We have witnessed that happen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

History has unlimited examples of the response of the ruling classes to rebellion—from the Spartacus revolt to the present. Their revenge when a revolt is quelled shows no bounds of morality or pity. They never stop to question whether “the ends justifies the means”—they mete out punishments to participants, which also serve as a warning to others. The actual procedures are not carried out by the individual capitalists but by the institutions that they have created over time to protect them—particularly the police and the armed forces. (“The first function of an army is to maintain order at home.” —Winston Churchill.)

Hedges tells us that Lenin and Trotsky were opportunists “who employed political terror, widespread arrests and executions to crush the autonomous, self-governing soviets and workers committees. He led a centralized, autocratic ruling elite...criminalized dissent, outlawed competing political parties, muzzled the press and instituted a system of state capitalism that stripped workers of their autonomy and rights.” Divorced from the context of civil war and imperialist invasions these sound like inevitable atrocities when most of these acts were the norms of war then and consequence of conditions and circumstances that were beyond the Bolsheviks’ control.

Every war requires intelligence gathering. If all military strategy is made available for public debate then the enemy’s intelligence gathering is made easier. Keeping some information from one’s own side helps also to keep it from the enemy. Lenin and Trotsky were no opportunists but realists. The Bolshevik party had to be more determined than their political enemies if the revolution was to survive. This is what Lenin and Trotsky taught us above all.

History does not allow reruns but it does provide us with lessons for the future. Had Lenin said “Ok this revolution isn’t working, lets meet the bourgeois representatives and peacefully hand them back the power.” How would that have ended? Augusto Sandino was murdered by the Nicaraguan National Guard when he went to meet them for negotiations. Such treachery has been a much-repeated experience. Ruling classes have no morals when it comes to threats to their interests.

The international bourgeoisie could have said “Well done getting rid of that parasitic aristocratic class. We will leave you alone to see how things work out.” As they did with the fascist regimes such as Mussolini’s, Franco’s and even Hitler’s for a while. Not a bit of it for the Russian Revolution—they recognized the threat of revolution spreading and sought to strangle the revolution as soon as possible. They were not immediately successful but the drain on the economy and the failure of the revolution to spread to Western Europe were among the conditions for Stalin and his kind to gain control of the party and the country. Chris Hedges recognizes these factors.

Trotsky as early as 1923 predicted that the course of attempting to build socialism in one country would eventually lead to the restoration of capitalism...only “he who never does anything never makes mistakes” wrote Lenin. The Bolsheviks had no handbook and few experiences to draw on other than the Paris Commune, which showed the consequences of the failure—the unfettered butchery of the Communards by the French ruling class.

From October 1917 on, everything the Bolsheviks did was experimental. Theory is a guide but the real world unmercifully challenges all theories and hopefully we learn from our successes, mistakes and setbacks.

A great quantity of Soviet records are now public and much more is now known of Lenin’s actions in power. If that evidence shows that Lenin became increasingly tyrannical we will accept those truths, but as Lenin himself said of Kautsky, “The valuable work he did will be ours forever.”

Our leaders past and present are not infallible gods, as the Stalinists would have it. They are humans who can make miscalculations and mistakes and if they do so we, and they, must recognize that. If our leaders cannot admit and correct their failures then they are not fit to lead. Marxists are not afraid of the truth.

Party building and cadres

In a revolutionary Marxist Party the rank and file members should not be slavish automatons who carry out the leadership’s dictates. We are not a religious sect. In a proper democratic centralist party each member knows exactly why a course of action has been chosen, understands why they are doing what they are doing because they have been involved in all stages of the decision making process.

There are many different aspects to the development of individual party members but in the end we want a party of clear thinking determined leaders in the class struggles not a collective of party hacks. In the periods of less intense activity all members should be trained in a multitude of tasks, which are useful in external campaigns and in internal party responsibilities. There should be extensive education programs for members, sympathizers and the public in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, which are still relevant guides to understanding the world today and how we should go about changing it for the better. Rosa Luxemburg’s views too are legitimate and have to be considered an important part of our heritage.

We are all conscripts in class warfare but we can choose to be conscious volunteers in the struggle by joining a revolutionary party. Party leaders too often forget that. In State and Revolution Lenin says that no functionary should hold a position permanently and all should be subject to immediate recall. That principle can be put into practice in the Leninist party so that that becomes the normal behavior.

The issue of party democracy has to be paramount. One-hundred-years of experience with the Leninist model of party building has shown that entrenched leaders in the communist movement including “Trotskyist” organizations lead to stagnation and degeneration.

Party leaders must continually earn the right to lead and that includes the ability to move aside especially when their strategy has failed. Above all it means training our parties to accept dissident minorities. We demand that the wider world accept our democratic right to hold and express dissident views but inside most left wing parties they are suppressed.

In party building and cadre training, internal democracy in the truest sense should be encouraged and developed and has to be central to all of our discussion and activities. That is one of the biggest lessons of the last 100 years. In periods like this our activities will be limited but this is the time for education, reflection and learning.

We have learned that without a revolutionary party armed with revolutionary theory there will not be a successful revolution. We have a century of experience to draw on and learn how to build democratic socialist parties and eliminate the bureaucratic and Stalinist practices that have poisoned our movement and betrayed humanity.

The undemocratic and Stalinist practices, splits and expulsions which have decimated our movement almost all have their roots in the inability of one section of the party, especially leaders, to accept members with differing views on tactics not general theory. Out they go. The result is a multitude of minuscule and ineffective sects and the loss to the movement of many able comrades.

The opportunities presented to the Trotskyist movement from the 1960s have largely been squandered. The rise of Trump and Johnson is, in part, due to our failure to build a significant international party of the revolutionary left. While fighting among ourselves over minor points of theory or past events, we have failed to build effective working class parties to the left of Stalinism and social democracy.

Disillusionment and poverty are now fuelling right wing populist movements around the world who will try to eradicate us and our ideas when they feel they are able to.

Is it possible to build a democratic centralist Leninist party?

If we learn the lessons of the past century I believe the answer is not only yes, but essential. The emphasis in cadre education in the present period has to have democracy at the heart of all internal practices with the accommodation of comrades with differing views. A Marxist party should consist of activist members who are always learning and conscious participants in the external class struggle and internal discussion. The future of humanity is at stake now. The capitalist class is unwilling and unable to solve the current economic and ecological crisis and if they are not overthrown the human race faces extinction.

1 “The Dilemma of Vladimir Lenin,” By Chris Hedges,Truthdig, July 1, 2019