In Defense of Critical Leninism

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Alan Wald

TIM WOHLFORTH’S “The Two Souls of Leninism”(1) addresses a topic of central concern to all partisans of social transformation. No paradox has so vexed the Left in the United States as the stunning success of the Ru3sian Revolution followed by its spectacular degeneration.

Tim is hardly the first to engage this problem. Indeed, in his opening paragraphs he attempts to summarize earlier contributions on the subject so as to forward the discussion to fresh terrain. Unfortunately, there are important places in his analysis where he draws the lines of debate inaccurately, where his facts are questionable, and where he curiously omits information crucial for a balanced and informed assessment of Leninism.(2) His conclusion is at best a regression to a familiar pre-Leninism and, as such, is hardly a much-needed advance to new ground.

Tim begins his article by affirming that there are two “souls” in the Leninist tradition, one good [democratic] and the other bad [elitist]. By doing so he suggests, like others who have used such a method, that he will attempt to salvage what is useful in Leninism and then perhaps offer a remedy for certain of its defects.

Instead, eventually we discover that Tim does not intend to correct Leninism to isolate its valid core from circumstantial mistakes. Rather, he counsels us to reject it altogether.

Although he continues to acknowledge that one of Leninism’s souls is abstractly “revolutionary and proletarian,” he nonetheless concludes that “Leninism is not valid as a democratic, revolutionary, working class heritage.”

He then calls for the development of a “post-Leninism” of which he posits only two characteristics: “We should insist upon pluralistic working-class politics rather than a suppression of working-class parties, and revolutionary fronts composed of several parties rather than vanguard party leaderships.”(3)

Earlier Critiques

Underlying this rejection is Tim’s conviction that adherence to Leninism of any variety entails support for a single-party state:

“I believe I have proven that the single-party state was the conscious construction of Lenin and Trotsky. It was not forced upon the Bolshevik leaders…. It was justified theoretically by the leading proponents of Leninism at the time. Any legitimate interpretation of Leninism must include the assertion that party leaders should do what Lenin and Trotsky did given similar circumstances.(4)

Tim is correct in his view that we cannot excuse mistakes made by the Bolshevik leaders on the basis of difficult objective circumstances, but the case for many of his more particular assertions is not at all convincing. Moreover, he ignores the rather substantial body of material by critical-minded Leninists that has already addressed these issues and offered substantial correctives to avoid a future repetition of these past mistakes.

These analyses began during the first ten years of the Left Opposition (1923-33), when Trotsky attempted to distinguish authentic Leninism from Stalinism. The issue was discussed further during the post-Moscow Trials wave of demoralization and deradicalization (1937 through the onset of the Cold War), when many former revolutionaries blamed “Leninism” for the degeneration of the Soviet Union and politically reverted to social democracy.

This debate came to a fuller fruition during the late 1960s and 1970s, when the “New Left” challenged the legacy of the Old Left. In this last phase, journals such as New Left Review published numerous essays which attempted to redeem what was still relevant in the Leninist heritage.(5)

In 1979, the Fourth International approved a crucial resolution, “Socialist Democracy and Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” written from a critical Leninist perspective. This comprehensive and thoughtful document proposes a theoretical analysis of the nature of parties and classes, and provides a set of practical proposals for revolutionary pluralism, both of which go far beyond anything suggested by Tim in his essay. Pluralism and democracy are programmatically codified as political necessities, not merely tactics or concessions. At one point the document states:

“Any restriction of … debates, struggles, and formations of parties and groupings, under the pretext that this or that platform ‘objectively’ reflects bourgeois or petty-bourgeois pressures and interests, and, ‘if logically carried out to the end,’ could ‘lead to the restoration of capitalism,’ can only hinder the emergence of majority agreement around the most effective solutions of these burning problems from the point of view of building socialism, i.e., from the point of view of the overall class interests of the proletariat, as opposed to sectoral, regional ‘national,’ group interests, etc.”(6)

In short, stamping out rival parties also stamps out access to ideas and approaches that may be superior to those of a self-proclaimed “vanguard.”

Making Virtue of Necessity

The specific quotations from Lenin and Trotsky that Tim submits in defense of his thesis only tell us what was already known to us and our predecessors: the Bolshevik leaders believed that the one-party system in the Soviet Union was justified by the exigencies of civil war and counter-revolutionary activity on the part of rival parties.

Today it is possible to fault Lenin and Trotsky for making a virtue out of what was at best a necessity; for too closely identifying their party with the interests of the working class as a whole; for setting up a secret police in 1918 rather than holding public tribunals with the accused having the right of defense; for too unilaterally condemning rival parties and tendencies for counter-revolutionary actions undertaken only by a few individuals or split-offs (especially for amalgamating the entire Menshevik party with the Right Social Revolutionaries); for temporarily banning factions at precisely the moment when additional Soviet parties might have been legalized; and for other errors during the Civil War and immediate postwar years that helped to destroy civil liberties, proletarian pluralism and workers’ democracy.

Such mistakes may have contributed to the fatal weakening of the working class’s ability to regain control of its own state after the Civil War and much of the objective crisis had abated. In this sense one might say that in practice the phase of the one-party dictatorship helped create the basis for Stalinism.

This is especially true if it can be demonstrated that other parties might have forwarded more effective proposals for working-class resistance to its executioners, the new bureaucracy. (But it should not be forgotten that Lenin himself recognized the degeneration process and struggled against it in his last months.)(7)

Of course, one’s case for making such criticisms will be far more persuasive to the extent that one can identify precise alternative policies the Bolsheviks might have carried out during the Civil War and the resultant economic crisis, rather than merely insisting on more “democracy.” As James Petras has observed in a recent study of democracy and transitional societies: “It is sheer demagoguery devoid of historical substance simply to wave the flag of democracy at -every point and place in history–particularly in periods of large-scale, long-term changes from one social system to another.”(8)

Still, there is no need to have a battle of the quotations to prove that Lenin and Trotsky made dubious statements during the Civil War and immediately following. In fact, more compromising remarks than those cited by Tim can be found in Terrorism and Communism (1920) and Between Red and White (1922), Trotsky’s least defensible books.

In the period of civil war and economic collapse, innumerable Bolshevik spokespeople felt compelled to advance formulations which have a harshly authoritarian ring. And to the above areas of criticism one might add that the Left Opposition as a whole might be faulted for restricting its 1923 Platform to calling merely for democratization of the Communist party rather than of the Soviet political system as a whole.(9)

One cannot, however, accuse Lenin and Trotsky of planning in advance to impose a one-party state, or of theorizing a universal application of one-party systems.

Despite the existence in the United States of a veritable research and publishing industry featuring anti-Soviet studies, serious evidence of such views has never been unearthed. Even the bitterly anti-communist Bertram D. Wolfe acknowledged in 1947 that “Lenin had no idea of outlawing all other parties and creating a one-party system.”(10)

Moreover, numerous statements by Lenin, Trotsky, other Bolsheviks, and contemporary observers, affirm unambiguous adherence to a multi-party system as their original intent.

Tim, on the other hand, claims that such statements by Trotsky, especially the clear-cut calls for a multi-party system and the more complex notion of the relation between party and class contained in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), were “not true.”(11) But even if Trotsky were misrepresenting the past, and even if certain policies of Bolshevism in power warrant sharp rejection, why does Tim exclude the possibility of Leninism correcting itself from within its own tradition? Does he also expect us to become “post-Marxists” if we happen to disagree with certain of Marx’s support of the United States in its 19th century expansionist war against Mexico? One justifies one’s sympathy for Marxism and Leninism on the basis of those of its features that are fundamental, not epiphenomenal or conjunctural.

What Is “Leninism?”

Indeed, a peculiarity of Tim’s essay is that he never defines what he means by “Leninism.” At least this term usually refers to twenty years of Lenin’s theory and practice as head of the Bolshevik party (1903-23); this covers many interrelated works and activities relevant to his developing a theory of class consciousness, sharply differentiating among reformist and revolutionary policies, outlining a new concept of imperialism, and, most importantly, promoting a strategy for the successful seizure of power.

A constant theme of Lenin’s work is the creation of an internally democratic, cohesive vanguard organization capable of aiding and defending the interests of the oppressed-a very important issue for this very moment in the United States. But Tim chooses to define the essence of Leninism as merely the series of tactical decisions (selectively chosen) Lenin made in the five years from the onset of the Soviet regime in November 1917 to his incapacitation in 1923-a period in which the vibrant workers’ democracy which came into being with the Bolshevik triumph was overwhelmed by civil war, foreign intervention, and economic collapse.

In any event, one might argue that for the past fifty years one of the major Leninist currents-the Trotskyists-have championed multi-party systems and a critical attitude toward Leninism with ever-increasing vehemence. In the United States, many articles and documents can be cited from the pages of the New International during the 1930s, and from the contributions of followers of the Trotskyist leaders James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman in later years.(12) Moreover, the example of the Nicaraguan Revolution to date suggests that Trotskyists are not alone in such an interpretation of Leninism.

The other feature of Tim’s post-Leninism is an insistence upon “revolutionary fronts composed of several parties rather than vanguard party leaderships.” This policy is also one that can be–and has in fact been–integrated into the Leninist tradition, unless Tim means it to be interpreted as an abstract principle.

Trotsky, after all, observed that an “example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history;” thus we can assume that in revolutionary struggle as well as in establishing a post-revolutionary government, contemporary Leninists will collaborate with other working-class parties in various forms in fronts, coalitions, and regroupment processes.(13) Peru, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, England and France are some of the countries in which Trotskyist groups have experimented with these forms of unity on the left.

Nevertheless, one cannot rule out a situation, especially in a small country, where a mass revolutionary party is so authoritative and internally diverse that it has no significant rivals. Moreover, Leninists, like anyone else, will seek to build their own organization as effectively as possible and surely they will not encourage workers to join other parties with dubious programs simply to create the simulacrum of “pluralism.”

When Tim speaks disparagingly of “vanguards,” he may mean simply to repudiate (correctly, in my view) the arrogance of those political sects who are convinced they alone possess the true revolutionary program and thus have license to substitute themselves for the “objective interests” of the working class. However, it would be a grave mistake to ignore the need for serious, effective, and united leadership, and instead to place our hopes on some sort of revolutionary spontaneity.

Trotsky expressed the humble but necessary function of a vanguard quite well: “Without a guiding organization the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston, or the box, but the steam.”(14)

Other Problems

Two other aspects of Tim’s essay require comment. First, it is certainly true that contemporary studies confirm that Tim has good grounds for arguing that Leninism contained elitist as well as “mass popular idealistic” elements; Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? emphasizes the former and his State and Revolution the latter.

The problem is that Tim eschews the subtle distinctions that socialists have to make in assessing such contradictory components of Leninism. It is ingenuous to denounce all elitism and praise all “democracy” in the abstract. The result is an emotion-laden distinction between “good” [democratic] and “bad” [elitist] souls of Leninism.

It is far better that every policy and practice be scrutinized in historical context for both its useful and its negative aspects. There have been and will continue to be many instances where a majority has supported policies that a revolutionary socialist minority must vigorously oppose.

In fact, all socialists are “elitist” in the sense that they stand for a better world than the present one. If the majority of the population is poisoned by the ideologies and cultures of racism, chauvism, sexism, and individualism, then the duty of socialists is to go against the stream, to aggressively promote–and in some extraordinary cases attempt to enforce–minority ideas. Moreover, under the difficult conditions of civil war it is often not possible to carry out full and democratic discussions of opposing strategies and policies.

Thus it is important to specify the precise forms of elitism that must be repudiated-such as arrogance and authoritarianism, traits that appear in all groups and are hardly peculiar to Leninists. It is also necessary to argue against elitism more seriously than by simply posing “democracy” as the easy alternative to every policy or practice that turned out badly.

The second aspect of Tim’s essay that requires criticism is his handling of many historical episodes. By deleting relevant information, Tim eliminates the ambiguity of many of these policies and actions in an attempt to make Leninism more directly prefigure Stalinism.

For example, he seems to be saying that the Bolsheviks had a chance for a serious, long-term coalition government in 1917, but Lenin and Trotsky categorically rejected the idea.

Where is the evidence for this? First, the coalition government proposed by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries was designed to exclude the Bolsheviks (who had led the revolution) altogether; then, after further negotiations, it was designed to exclude the political leadership of the Bolsheviks (Lenin and Trotsky).

Second, even if a coalition government had been established, why does Tim have the slightest confidence that it would have lasted for more than a brief moment? The political record of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in the coalition government prior to the October Revolution suggests that a split was inevitable. In any event, the Bolsheviks did establish a coalition government with the left wing of the Social Revolutionaries, although the latter subsequently left the coalition.(15)

Another example is Tim’s handling of the Bolshevik repression of the anarchists. One can hardly make an assessment as to whether this was justified or not until there is agreement on the facts.

Tim claims that in April 1918 “the Cheka acted against all anarchists quite independent of the attitude of the different anarchist groups towards illegal activity and terrorism.”(16) In the next paragraph, however, Tim mentions that “some anarchists were let out of prison and occasionally an anarchist publication would appear,” indicating that, in fact, the Cheka did discriminate.

Tim’s one-sided account does not correspond to the more detailed version provided by Victor Serge, a former anarchist who supported the Bolsheviks.

In Year One of the Russian Revolution, Serge maintained that in April 1918 the Bolsheviks refrained absolutely from amalgamating the anarchists with the enemies of the revolution: “Their [the Bolsheviks’] press was at pains to declare that no obstacle would be placed in the way of the anarchists’ continued existence or their propaganda. Once disarmed, these maintained their press, organizations and clubs.”(17)

In further bolstering his case that the Bolsheviks behaved with Stalinist-like brutality in suppressing the anarchists, Tim writes blithely that the areas controlled by the Ukranian Nestor Makhno “were administered in the anarchist spirit as a kind of free association of communes.”(18) But E.H. Carr calls Makhno’s anti-authoritarianism an exaggeration and Marcel Liebman points out that Makhno banned all rival political parties wherever he had power.(19)

Tim’s discussion of the repression of the Mensheviks also fails to correspond to the accounts that appear in Carr and Liebman. For example, Tim states authoritatively that the Menshevik leaders “expelled any Mensheviks who participated in conspiracies and military actions against the Bolsheviks.”(20) Yet Marcel Liebman points out that “this decision seems neither to have been applied to all the Mensheviks concerned nor to have been made effective.”(21)

If historians such as Liebman, Carr and Deutscher are accurate, Tim exaggerates both the innocence of the Mensheviks vis-a-vis counter-revolutionary activities, and the monolithic authoritarianism of the Bolshevik response.(22)

Need For Critical Leninism

The point of the above observations is not to deny a monolithic tendency in Bolshevism that Tim sees appearing after October 1917 (though, in fact, this tendency became pronounced only beginning in the spring and summer of 1918); rather, it is to gain greater clarity as to the causes of this monolithic tendency and to propose viable alternatives.

The crucial objective factors (the legacy of poverty and underdevelopment in Russia, the numerical and cultural weakness of the Russian working class, the catastrophic decline of the productive forces as a result of the civil war, foreign imperialist military intervention) do not excuse political mistakes, but they do establish a crucial context.

If on incorporates the already cited criticisms of certain Bolshevik practices, the general program Of the Left Opposition–increasing the number and weight of the working class by industrialization; encouraging collectivization of agriculture for example; instituting a revolutionary foreign policy to diminish the U.S.S.R.’s isolation; democratizing the party; etc.–still remains the most promising program overall for staving off the 1920s degeneration process.

In conclusion, Tim states that, “I do not hold that Leninism and Stalinism are identical.” What is the point of Tim’s rejecting a position to which no one adheres?

Even the most reactionary scholars insist that Leninism and Stalinism are only sequentially connected–that the former prefigured or led inexorably to the latter. Princeton political scientist Stephen Cohen characterizes this as a “straight-line theory.”

Despite Tim’s support of the October seizure of power, he clearly embraces this view. At the end of his essay he states that: “I do insist, however, that Leninism created the conditions for the triumph of Stalinism.”(23) This leads Tim to embrace “post-Leninism” (whatever that means) as an alternative.

In contrast, there exists a view that may be regarded as “critical Leninist” and that is held by a good many supporters of Against the Current today. This is consistent with the judgment of Victor Serge: “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.’ Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse–and which he may have carried in him since his birth–is that very sensible ?'”(24)

In sum, there is nothing in Tim’s concluding proposals that is inherently “post-Leninist.” So why does he use the term, when we might well call ourselves “critical Leninists”?

Fredric Jameson has said of those who have lately declared themselves “post-Marxist”: “A host of recent ‘post-Marxisms’ document the truth of the assertion that attempts to ‘go beyond’ Marxism typically end by re-inventing older pre-Marxist positions ….”(25) The term, “post-Leninist,” without a coherent doctrine that is superior to Leninism, may serve the same function, thus facilitating in the guise of innovations and progress an approach that is fundamentally and historically regressive.

I am grateful to Sam Farber, Dave Finkel, Berta Langston, Paul Le Blanc, Patrick Quinn and Tom Twiss for making suggestions for the content of this reply, although I alone am responsible for what is written here.


  1. Against the Current #4-5 (September October 1986): 37-42.
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  2. Following Tim Wolforth’s approach, I will treat “Leninism” and “Bolshevism” as synonymous for purposes of this discussion. Nevertheless it is worth noting that the Bolshevik party in Lenin’s time was comprised of various groupings; thus it is arguable that some of these–for example, the Workers Opposition, the Democratic Centralists, and even the early right-wing Bolsheviks may have in certain instances had a superior understanding of the nature of workers’ democracy and the importance of individual rights than did Lenin. One of the unfortunate features of Tim’s one-sided approach is that it prevents the development of a more subtle and potentially more fruitful analysis in which the peculiarly “Leninist” component of Bolshevism might be criticized from within the larger Bolshevik tradition.
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  3. Ibid., 42.
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  4. Ibid., 42.
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  5. For varying perspectives see Istvan Meszaros, “Dictatorship and Dissent,” New Left Review 108 (March-April 1978): 3-22; Arghiri Emmanuel, “State and Transition,” New Left Review 113-14 (January-April 1979): 111-132; Norman Geras, “Marxism and Pluralism,” New Left Review 125 (January-February 1981): 75-89. A number of fine essays on this subject by New Left Review editorial broad member Norman Geras have been collected in Literature of Revolution: Essays on Marxism (London: Verso, 1986). Tim Wohlforth’s earlier contribution on this topic, ‘Transition to the Transition,” New Left Review 130 (November-December 1981): 6782, was also a valuable addition to the literature on Leninism. Three other crucial essays during the 1960s and 1970s are: Isaac Deutscher, “Roots of Bureaucracy,” Socialist Register 1969 (New York: Monthly Review, 1969), 9-28; Ernest Mandel, ‘The Leninist Theory of Organization: Its Relevance for Today,” International Socialist Review 31, no. 9 (December 1970): 26-50; and Ernest Mandel, “Liebman and Leninism,” Socialist Register 1975 (New York: Monthly Review, 1975, 95-114.
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  6. “Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” 1979 World Congress of the Fourth International: Reports and Resolutions (New York: Intercontinental Press/lnprecor, January 1980), 212.
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  7. See Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York: Vintage, 1970) and VJ. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s Last Struggle (New York: Pathfinder, 1975).
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  8. James Petras, “Authoritarianism, Democracy and the Transition to Socialism,” Socialist Register (New York: Monthly Review, 1985-86), 268.
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  9. See Leon Trotsky, The New Course (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1965).
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  10. Betram D. Wolfe, cited in Paul Le Blanc’s unpublished book on Lenin’s politics, 381.
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  11. “The Two Souls of Leninism,” 39.
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  12. A good example from the Cannon tradition is George Novack’s Democracy and Revolution (New York: Pathfinder, 1971).
    “[Although] a single party regime .may be characteristic of totalitarianism, it is alien to the Marxist tradition, the intentions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks or the program of Trotskyism which carries them forward.. .A plurality of parties is not only most favorable to the political vitality of the state in the transitional period but also useful to the ruling party as well. The existence of competition and criticism, the presentation of alternative policies and courses, the direct confrontation of differing orientations act as a prod to keep the party from becoming insensitive, complacent and sluggish.” (236)

    An example from the Workers Party tradition is Max Shachtman’s 1943 essay, “The ‘Mistakes’ of the Bolsheviks” (New International 9, no. 10 [November 1943]: 305), where he says pointedly: “Even if every non-Bolshevik group, without exception, had resorted to armed struggle against the Soviet power, it was a disastrous mistake to outlaw them in perpetuity.” Three years later, in a critique of Anton Ciliga’s argument in The Russian Enigma that Lenin’s policies laid the foundation for Stalinism, Workers Party leader Albert Goldman (a former supporter of Cannon who had come to support Shachtman) could say with confidence: “Between the Trotskyists and Ciliga there can be no quarrel on the necessity of recognizing that a one-party dictatorship is dangerous to the revolution” (“The Basis of Workers’ Democracy,” New International 12, no. 10 {December 1946]: 305). Contemporary Leninists can feel just as confident in making the same point.back to text
  13. The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Viking, 1972), 267.
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  14. Quoted on page one of Daniel Singer’s Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970).
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  15. Irving Howe, Leon Trotsky (New York: Viking, 1978), 53-54. Even though Howe writes from an avowed non-Marxist and non-Leninist perspective, he seems more responsive to the ambiguities of the situation than Tim.
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  16. “The Two Souls of Leninism,” 40.
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  17. Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1972, 212-220).
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  18. “The Two Souls of Leninism,” 40.
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  19. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 1 (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1971, 308; and Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 253.
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  20. Wolhforth, “Two Souls of Leninism,” 40.
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  21. Marcel Liebman, “Was Lenin a Stalinist?” in Tariq Ali, ed., The Stalinist Legacy (London: Penguin, 1984), 146.
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  22. Carr, 160-190; Liebman, 242-270; Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (New York: Oxford, 1954), 405-522.
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  23. “The Two Souls of Leninism,” 42.
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  24. Victor Serge, “Reply to Ciliga,” in V.L Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt (New York: Monad, 1979), 137-38.
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  25. Fredric Jameson, “Reflections in Conclusion,” Ernst Bloch et al, Aesthetics and Politics (London: New Left Books, 1977), 196.
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January-February 1987, ATC 6

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